Nathan Smith, history
Written for REL-A 351: Christianity and Modernity
Instructor: Prof. Sonia Velazquez
The term “utopia,” a common word and concept in today’s world, was originally coined in Thomas More’s book, Utopia. In Utopia, More describes an idealized type of perfect society. The term has come to mean “an imagined or hypothetical place, system, or state of existence in which everything is perfect, esp. in respect of social structure, laws, and politics,” or “a real place which is perceived or imagined as perfect” (Oxford English Dictionary). As individuals have different moral values, political beliefs, and views on human nature, there are equally different ideas of how a utopia would operate. This natural individuality can create tensions during an attempt to assimilate people into any society, especially a utopian society with rigorously pre-determined institutions. In this paper, I will discuss how the nature of human individuality and the distribution of labor and work relate to a utopian society, and how these concepts affects the success of such a society. I will use Robert Owen’s early 19th century attempt to create a socialist utopia in the town of New Harmony in conjunction with concepts put forth in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition to exemplify these concepts and illustrate the weakness of utopias.
Hannah Arendt, although she does not lay out a specific, formulaic utopia, does discuss her views on how labor and its distribution essentially affect the human condition. Arendt believes that the cyclical nature of labor and consumption is necessary for the human condition; if a society no longer needs to labor, it will change the proportion at which we consume, possibly “to the point where nearly all human ‘labor power’ is spend consuming” (Arendt 131). This disrupted cycle could get out of control to the point to where it would be detrimental to both the Earth and to the human condition. She believes that labor is just as necessary for humanity as the consumption made possible by labor.
The idea that every person is unique and individual is a popularly held belief, and one that Arendt agrees with; she calls this condition of individuality plurality, and states that “we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live” (Arendt 8). This human plurality, our uniqueness, dictates how we relate and interact with each other in any society.
As the concept of utopia first took true form in Thomas More’s book Utopia, we must examine it to understand the relationship between labor and utopia. In More’s book, he depicts a fictional land called Utopia, which is comprised of fifty-four cities with identical language, customs, institutions, and laws. Every city has six thousand households, each of which has between ten and sixteen adults, who are fluid and can easily move to other cities or colonize other areas in order to best serve the society. In More’s book, the common good comes before the good of individuals, and thus the distribution of labor is setup to promote the successfulness of the society. Every physically capable citizen has the responsibility of working, thus the labor and work that keeps the society running is shared. Everyone is taught how to farm, and spends two-year stints in the countryside cultivating the land in order to feed the population. In addition to farming, everyone is taught at least one essential skill, such as metal-smithing, carpentry, masonry, or weaving. Everyone must work in order to maximize the successfulness of the society while minimizing the necessary workload of individuals. Just as the labor is shared in Utopia, so are the products of the work. There is no personal property; everyone shares in the goods created by the communal labor. The general concept that underlies this Utopia is sharing of both labor and consumption for the common good. The raising of the young and their education on how to work is the responsibility of the society in general, not necessarily the parents.
Although this type of communal society may appeal to some, and could be lauded under the banner of ‘unity’ or ‘solidarity’, there are questionable elements about its foundations, even if the system could actually be designed and established. What are the patterns of work and labor in More’s Utopia, and how does this affect the human condition? How are the citizens of Utopia unique or distinct from each other, given that they are communally raised and conduct similar labor? The civilization Utopia indeed seems frighteningly similar to a ‘hive mind’ type colony, in which the individuals of the colony are unified under a single intelligence or consciousness. How is a civilization like Utopia similar to the natural state of animals? A lack of private property, communal raising of the young, and a de-emphasis on individualization certainly seems reminiscent of the animalistic backgrounds from which we may have come. These institutions seem to conflict with the condition of human of plurality discussed by Hannah Arendt. If More’s Utopia does, in fact, strip its citizens of individual identity, than is individualization truly necessary for human satisfaction? Could More’s Utopia survive if it infringed upon human plurality? Although Utopia is a fictional civilization in a fictional book, history has provided some similar examples for the study of such questions.
Robert Owen, a successful industrialist who lived in and owned factories in Scotland in the early 19th century, sailed to the United States in 1824 in order to establish a utopian community based upon concepts he had been developing in Europe. While he managed mills in Scotland, he had developed a belief that the primary dictator in the development of people, either positive or negative, was their environment. Owen had, therefore, worked to improve conditions of laborers and families by establishing shorter working hours and social services. He campaigned for “8 hours labor, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest” and while the wages in his mill were lower than other mills, he promoted education and churching, and he instituted free medical services and recreational facilities (Carmony, Elliot para. 5). He believed that “the whole character of every infant, child, and man, is formed for him…and that the character of every human being, is, without exception, an effect necessarily proceeding from these united causes” (Stephen 39). He therefore set out “to adopt the most efficient measures to improve the future organization of all individuals of his race, and to surround them by those circumstances only which experience may prove to be the most effectual to create the best or most superior character in each of them” (Stephen 39).
Owen sailed to the ‘New World’ in 1824, determined to create a new, superiorly organized society that would promote character in its citizens; what better place to create a new society than the New World? Owen purchased most of the property in Harmony, Indiana, a Harmonist settlement that was being sold in order to move to a new location. Robert Owen set out to create his utopian society. He based his new society upon communal production and consumption, similar to Thomas More’s fictional Utopia. Owen instituted communal living and education, as well as a system of “time money” and “time stores;” a person’s earnings were directly correlated to the time that he or she labored, and people could exchange their “time money” for commodities worth the equivalent amount of labor (Hogan para. 5). He invited anyone and everyone to join in the hopes that his community could jumpstart a society with multiple cities functioning the same way, much like Thomas More’s Utopia. His project fell apart within two years of its beginnings however. Production shortages and a lack of unity created tensions and rifts in his community, leading to the dissolution of its utopian system in 1827.
Robert Owen’s concepts seem principally sound. They are similar to More’s system, albeit on a less revolutionary scale. His balance of labor, consumption, and free time seem in step with parts of Hannah Arendt’s writings; he sought to establish a system that balanced all of these elements to promote the health of the citizens of New Harmony. Why then, were there production shortages, and why did this project fail? Owen believes that a major factor was that his community drew “crackpots, free-loaders, and adventurers;” those who did not fall in line with his vision. These issues all stem from the necessity for cohesion in a utopia.
A utopia is, in theory, perfect, and therefore necessitates its citizens to be unified under the theories that the Utopia is built upon. Thomas More’s Utopia did not have to deal with political or social dissidents; it was fictional. Owen’s quite real community, on the other hand, collapsed when its citizens, the foundation of his town, were not unified; his focus on dividing people’s lives into labor, leisure, and rest impeded their ability to distinguish themselves as unique and exceptional. Utopian New Harmony’s lack of unity can perhaps be attributed to the Arendtian concept of plurality of the citizens. Actual people in any society, including New Harmony, are individuals. People argue and seek to establish individual identities for themselves, and Utopian societies are ill equipped to deal with this plurality of humanity.