The Story of Utopias, by Lewis Mumford, , at sacred-texts.com
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How Étienne Cabet dreamed of a new Napoleon called Icar, and a new France called Icaria; and how his utopia, with that which Edward Bellamy shows us in Looking Backward, gives us a hint of what machinery might bring us to if the industrial organization were nationalized.
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ÉTIENNE CABET opened his eyes upon the year that preceded the meeting of the National Assembly in 1788, and closed them upon the Empire of Napoleon III.
It would be foolish to give an account of Cabet's Voyage en Icarie without noting these facts; for the reason that Cabet's most impressionable years were drenched with the flamboyant light of the Napoleonic conquests and the Napoleonic tradition which remained as an afterglow when the conquests themselves had fallen below the horizon. The spectacle of a nationalized church and a nationalized system of education, extending their ministrations to the smallest commune through a vast system of bureaucracy, must have given a solidity to his dreams which the interruption of the first Napoleon's personal downfall could only have reinforced.
To understand why the Journey to Icaria, as we may call it, should have been one of the best sellers among workingmen in 1845, and to see why Louis Blanc should have attempted to set up an organization of National Workshops in 1848, one must realize the historic momentum of Napoleon's dictatorship. Cabet consciously or unconsciously idealized the Napoleonic tradition; and in Icaria he consummated it. That Cabet's futile will-to-power should have led him, under the inspiration of Owen, to the swamps of Missouri as
the leader of a little band of communist pioneers is an ironic twist of circumstance: his Icaria was a national state, with all its pomp and dignity and splendor, and not a squalid collection of huts in the midst of a dreary prairie. Cabet died in America, as much perhaps from an outraged sense of dignity as from any physical disease, and nothing came of his utopia until Edward Bellamy gave it a fresh outline in Looking Backward.
With the romantic element in the Journey to Icariathe English lord and the Icarian family he visits, and the various friendships and love affairs that are outlined in its pagesI purpose to have nothing to do. These things add an element of complication to Cabet's picture without doing very much to illuminate it.
Icaria is a country divided into a hundred provinces almost equal in extent and almost the same in population. These provinces are in turn divided into ten communes, which are likewise almost equal, and the provincial capital is in the center of the province, whilst each communal city is the center of the commune. The elegance and precision of the decimal system has overlaid the facts of geography and as one looks over the map of the imaginary country one recalls the way in which the French revolution divided France into arbitrary administrative areas called departments, upsetting those ancient regional groupings which corresponded, roughly, with the natural units of soil, climate, population, and historic continuity.
In the midst of Icaria is the city of Icara. Icara is a reconstructed Paris, built on a reconstructed Seine.
[paragraph continues] It is almost circular, cut into two equal parts by a river whose banks have been straightened and enclosed in two straight walls; and the bed has been deepened to receive ocean vessels. In the middle of the city the river divides into two arms, which form a rather big circular islandthough the islands formed naturally by the division of a river are inevitably not circular!and here is the civic center, planted with trees, in the midst of which stands a palace. There is a superb garden elevated on a terrace; in the center, a vast column surmounted by a colossal statue that dominates all the buildings. On each side of the river is a big quay, bordered by public offices. The effect is indubitably metropolitan.
The city is divided into quarters: Icara has sixty communes of almost equal size. In each quarter is a school, a hospital, a temple, shops, public places, and monuments. The streets are straight and wide, the city being traversed by fifty avenues parallel to the river and fifty perpendicular to it. How it is possible to reconcile this street plan with a circular city I have no notion; and Cabet apparently did not take the trouble to cast his verbal specifications into a definite picture or plan. Each block has fifteen houses on each side, with a public building in the middle, and one at each end; and between the rows of houses are gardens which the inhabitants of Icaria, like those of Utopia, have a great pride in keeping up. The blocks are arranged around squares, very much like those of Belgravia and Mayfair in London; but the gardens are public ones and are cared for by the inhabitants.
The Icarian villages are almost as metropolitan as the principal city itself. One notes a great preoccupation
with hygienic conveniences and sanitary regulations. There are dust collectors of special model; the sidewalks are covered with glass against rain; and the stations for omnibuses are also covered. The streets are well-lighted and paved. Stables, slaughter houses, and hospitals are on the outskirts of the village. The factories and warehouses are on the railway lines and canals, and half the streets are closed to all traffic except dog-carts.
In sum, Icaria enjoys a highly sophisticated and metropolitan form of life. Everything has been "arranged," everything has been "attended to." There are no upsetting complications and diversities. Even the weather has been disposed of. Nothing short of a very powerful and persistent organization could have accomplished these things. What is this organization?
In the beginning was Icar, the dictator who established the government of Icaria, and out of Icar there sprang a number of bureaux, departments, and committees. Let us follow a typical Icarian through his day, and examine the institutions he comes in contact with.
Our Icarian is an early riser by necessity, for at 6 A. M. breakfast is served in a restaurant or factory. It is not a capricious breakfast; it is such a breakfast, perhaps, as the guardians of Battle Creek, Michigan, dream of. The food that is served in Icaria is regulated by a committee of scientists; and while everybody has all that is good for him, precisely what is good and in what amounts, someone else has decided in advance.
[paragraph continues] So it is at present in our armies and navies, and to some extent in our cheap lunchrooms, the difference being that there remains, outside Icaria, the possibility of breaking away from the routine and following caprice and appetite without respect for the committee of dietitians.
When our Icarian has breakfasted, he goes to his work, seven hours in summer, six in winter. He works the same number of hours as every other Icarian, and whether he works in the field or the workshop, the products of his industry are deposited in public stores. Who is his employer? The State. Who owns all the instruments of production and service, down to the horses and carriages? The State. Who organizes the workers? The State. Who constructs the stores and factories, attends to the cultivation of the ground, has houses built, and makes all the things necessary for clothing, lodging, and transport? The same. In theory, the public is the sole proprietor and director of industry; in practiceCabet doesn't tell us otherwise and it necessarily follows in a system of national industrya body of engineers and officials have taken over the dictatorship of Icar and are running the affairs of the community.
How familiar this Icaria seems to us. Utopiacest la guerre!
When he is through with his work, our Icarian possibly changes his clothes. Exactly what clothes are necessary, and what are permissible has already been prescribed by a committee on clothes; which comes to saying that every Icarian's dress is a uniform, even as every Icarian is an official of the State. Eating, working, dressing, sleepingthere is no getting away from
[paragraph continues] State regulations. The uniformity that irks us in modern life and that makes people who have some remnant of free initiative in their makeup chafe in the civil service, to say nothing of the army, is extended to the last degree in Icaria. Napoleon's conception of a nation in arms is dominant; only now it is a nation in overalls.
Our Icarian's father and mother were married after a six-month interval of courtship. Since they took advantage of the institution at the earliest moment permitted by law, he was twenty and she was eighteen. By education, they had been taught to look upon conjugal fidelity as a desideratum; and they realized that concubinage and adultery would be looked upon as crimes by public opinion, even if these crimes were not punished by law. Before our Icarian was born his mother received public instruction on maternity.
Up to the age of five our Icarian's education was domestic; but from the fifth to the seventeenth or eighteenth year, domestic instruction was combined with intellectual and moral education, under a program laid down by a committee which had consulted all systems of education, ancient and modern. His general or elementary education was the same as that of every other Icarian; but at seventeen for girls and eighteen for men, his professional education began.
The only industries or professions open to our Icarians were those recognized and sanctioned by the State; and every year a list is published telling the number of workers needed in each profession. The number of workers, in turn, is determined by a committee on industry, which plans the amount of goods that must be produced during the coming year. Our
[paragraph continues] Icarian begins work at eighteen, his sister at seventeen; and he is exempt from work at sixty-five, while she would be exempt at fifty. The republic, I may note parenthetically, asks from each commune the sort of industrial and agricultural production which goes best with its natural resources; delivering its surplus production to other communes and giving it, in turn, what it may lack.
Cabet describes all these institutions in the minutest fashion, down to the noiseless window with which each Icarian's house is equipt; but the broad outlines of the industrial and social system are contained in this picture. What we see is a National State, abundantly organized for war, and remaining on that footing in the midst of its peace-time activities. What is not of national importance, in this scheme of things, is of no importance; and the people who decide what is or is not of national importance are the officeholdersI find it difficult to discover a utopian equivalent for this word or to fancy any great improvement in utopiain the capital.
The political activities that regulate these Icarian institutions do not greatly reassure us. From each of the thousand communes two deputies are chosen to hold office for two years: this constitutes the national representation. The basis of this system is the communal assembly; and from this communal assembly the provincial representatives are drawn. The national executive consists of sixteen members, each with a special department; and it is plain that here is the seat of power; for exactly what business remains in the hands of the two thousand legislators when the food committee has determined the amount and variety of food, the
industrial committee the quantity and kind of manufactured products, and the educational committee the methods, subjects, and aims of education, it is a little hard to determine.
There are no newspapers and no means of organized criticism, except the right of submitting propositions to the popular assemblies. The only thing resembling public opinion is the collective opinion of these assemblies. The newspapers are published by the government, one for the nation, one for the province, and one for the commune; and they are devoted solely to the presentation of news, divorced from opinion. For this kind of political system, and for all the power that it might presume to wield, there is a word in philosophy which has no substituteepiphenomenon. The popular system of representation in Icaria is but a shadow of that dictatorial power which was first wielded by Icar and was in turn transmitted to the committees and bureaux.
If I have been criticizing Icaria in terms of the last century of political experience, I can only plead that it is because Icaria is so little like Utopia and so much like the actual order of things. It must be prepared to stand fire as a fait accompli: indeed, in the early days of the second Russian revolution it came near to being a fait accomplithere was more of Cabet than of Marx perhaps in embryonic Soviet Russia! Icaria is essentially not an ideal but an idealization; and it is in order to keep the two from being confused that I have emphasized its little weaknesses. What is good in Icaria is what is good in the institution of an army; what is bad is what is bad in the execution of a war. If the good life could be perpetrated by a junta of
busybodies, as Plato would call them, Icaria would be a model community.
Looking backward into the future: that was the paradox by which a young New England romancer, Edward Bellamy, concerned like Thoreau and Emerson and the rest of the great Concord school with the well-being of his community, descended from literature to sociology; and stirred the minds of thousands of people in America in much the same fashion that Theodor Hertzka, writing at the same time, stirred his European contemporaries. Having begun to romanticize about reality, Bellamy during the decade that followed the publication of Looking Backward, devoted himself to realizing his romance. In a later work, Equality, he set forth his picture of the New Society of the year 2000 in much greater detail; just as if the popularity of his first work committed him to take up seriously the tasks of the economist and the statesman.
The chief pleasure, nowadays, in both of these books is the familiar one of recognition; for if Bellamy did not portray a better future he at any rate, like Mr. H. G. Wells, in his early romances, outlined many ports of a future that has for us, in the twentieth century, become an actuality; a fact which makes us realize very poignantly the limitations of his utopia. In spite of a thin-lipped style, Bellamy handles his story in a neat, workmanlike way, with a certain plausibility and familiarity which doubtless explains the fact that it can still be found, without any difficulty, on
the fiction shelves of our circulating public libraries.
The preface to Looking Backward is dated: "Historical Section Shawmut College, Boston, December 26, 2000." In that preface the work is presented as an avowed romance which will enable the readers of 2000 to realize the gaps that separate them from their ancestors, and to value the prodigious "moral and material" transformation that has taken place in a few generations. Julius West is a person whom our Shawmut historian invents, to bridge the gap between the two eras, Julius West, a young man of wealth, sensitive to the ignominy of his position, and feeling that, as a "rich man living among the poor, an educated man among the uneducated," he "was like one living in isolation among a jealous and alien race." In order to overcome his insomnia West sleeps in a vaulted room in the foundations of his house, and gets put to sleep by a hypnotist; and so by a dramatic oversight he hibernates for 113 years, and awakens among strange faces. Needless to say, West has a love affair in the old world which is carried on in the new, through a descendant of the girl he meant to marry; and it is equally needless to observe that he reawakens to the world of 1887 as soon as the institutions of 2000 have been described and the love affair has been resolved.
Let us take West's muzziness, his amazement, and his sense of isolation for granted, and follow him as he explores his new environment.
If Plato cavalierly disposes of the labor problem of the Republic by permitting things to remain pretty
much as they were, Bellamy makes the solution of labor organization and the distribution of wealth the key to every other institution in his utopia.
In the United States of 1887 the growing organization of labor and the aggregation of capital into trusts were the two chief economic factors: Dr. Leete, Julius West's host, pictures how this aggregation and combination were continued until, by a mere shift of gears, "the epoch of trusts had ended in The Great Trust." In a word, "the people of the United States concluded to assume the conduct of their own business, just as one hundred years before they had assumed the conduct of their own government, organizing now for industrial purposes on precisely the same grounds that they had organized for political purposes." Was there any violence in this transition? Ah no! everything had been prepared beforehand by public opinion, the great corporations had gradually trained everybody into an acceptance of large-scale organization, and the final step of merging all the big corporations into a national corporation occurred without a jar. With the assumption by the nation of the mills, machinery, railroads, farms, mines, and capital in general, all the difficulties of labor vanished, for every citizen became by virtue of his citizenship an employee of the government, and was distributed according to the needs of industry.
In 2000 "the labor army" is not a figure of speech: it is an army indeed, for the nation is a single industrial unit, and the principle upon which the working force is recruited is universal compulsory industrial service. After a man's education has been completed in the common school system, which extends straight through college, he must first serve a term of three
years in an unclassified labor army, which performs all the rough and menial tasks of the community. When this period is over, he is permitted to offer himself as a recruit in any of the trades or professions which may be declared open by the government, and can train for his calling up to the age of thirty, in the national schools and institutes. In order to attract people into occupations where they are needed, the hours are reduced and, for the dangerous trades, volunteers are called for. There are however no discriminations in pay. Every person is credited with a sum of four thousand dollars per annum at the National Bank, a sum which he receives because of his needs as a man and not because of his capacity as a worker. Instead of being rewarded for giving the full measure of his energies and abilities, a man is penalized if he fails to do so. It is possible to shift from one branch of the service to another, under certain restrictions, even as in the navy one can change one's rating and apply for service on a different ship or station, but except for the possibility of retiring on a half-income at the age of thirty-three, everyone must remain at work until he is forty-five.
To this rule there is one exception; and we may note ironically that it is made in favor of the writer's guild. If a man produces a book he may name his own royalties, and live as long from this income as the sale will allow; and if he wishes to start a newspaper or a magazine, and can get credit from a sufficient number of other people to support his enterprise, there is nothing to prevent him from remitting service to the amount his guarantors are ready to deduct from their personal income. In other words, a man must "either by
literary, artistic, or inventive productiveness indemnify the nation for the loss of his services, or must get a sufficient number of people to contribute to such an indemnity." This is the one open hole in our militarized, industrial utopia; and I think it is the most acceptable feature in the whole system. A community organized as a single unit, directed by a general staff at Washington, and perpetually exhibiting a herd complex which every institution would naturally reinforce, might not be a very genial shelter for the soul of an artist; but if it were, this means of support would doubtless be fair and excellent for the encouragement of the arts.
To go back to our army. The entire field of production and distribution is divided into ten great departments, each representing a group of allied industries; and each particular industry is in turn represented by a subordinate bureau, which has a complete record of the plant and the force under its control, of the present product, and of the means of increasing it. The estimates of the distributive department, after adoption by the administration, are sent as mandates to the ten great departments, which allot them to the subordinate bureaux, representing the particular industries, and these set the men at work. . . . "After the necessary contingents have been detailed for the various industries, the amount of labor left for other employment is expended in creating fixed capital, such as buildings, machinery, engineering works, and so forth."
In order to safeguard the consumer from the caprices of the administration, a new article must be produced as soon as a certain guaranteed demand for it has been established by popular petition, whilst an old article
must be continued to be produced as long as there are customers for it, provision being made that the price rise in accordance with the greater cost of production per unit.
Now the general of this industrial army is the president of the United States. He is chosen from among the corps commanders; and it is provided that every officer in the army, from the president down to the sergeant, must work his way up from the grade of common laborer. The chief peculiarity of this system consists in the way in which the voting is done. The voters are all honorary members of the guild to which they belong; that is, men who are over forty-five years old; this applies not merely to the ten lieutenant generals, but to the commander-in-chief, who is not eligible for the presidency until he has been a certain number of years out of office. The president is elected by vote of all the men of the nation who are not connected with the industrial army; for any other method, Bellamy thinks, would be prejudicial to discipline. There are various names for this practice: one of them is gerontocracy, or government by the aged; and another, more familiar, is "alumni control." When we recollect that the hardships of military service look rather mild and pleasant to the man who has been mustered out, I doubt if the youngsters in the industrial army would stand much chance of having their lot improved if the initiative for a change had to come from the alumni. Yet we know what even the formation of a worker's shop committee would be in an industrial army: it would be mutiny. As for criticism of the administration, that would be treason; admiration for the practices of another country would be disloyalty; and advocacy of a change in the method of industry would be sedition.
True: corruption and bribe-taking and all the dirty scandals that we associate today with a financial oligarchy would be wiped out in utopia; but this merely means that the defects of the old order would disappear along with its virtues. What would remain would be the defects that arise when a nation is in arms, and when there is no escape, by travel or mental withdrawal, from its institutions; in short, the defects of a state of war. To call this a peaceful community is absurd: one might as well call a battleship a pleasure-craft because a modern one possesses a band and shows motion pictures to the crew. The organization of this utopia is an organization for war; and the one rule that such a community would not tolerate is "live and let live." If this is the peace that "industrial preparedness" ensures it is scarcely worth having. Any community that liked this state of life would scarcely need the constant exhortation of the recruiting sergeant or the final compulsion of a conscription act.
The great part of Looking Backward is a discussion of this perfected form of industrial organization; the manner in which it is worked; and the effects of complete economic equality in doing away with the necessity for the greater part of the legal machinery of the present day, since crimes with an economic motive would almost, according to Bellamy, be unthinkable. Here and there however we have glimpses of the social life of this new age.
First of all, there floats before our eyes the picture of a vast body of superannuated persons, who for the
most part spend their time in a sort of country-club existence. They can travel, because the other countries in the world are likewise nationalized, and by a simple system of book-keeping foreign credit for goods and personal services can be transferred from one country to another; and they can take up special vocations and hobbies during their superannuated years; but it is equally plain that their work has not done very much to foster intellectual or emotional maturity, since in relation to the citizens the state exists as a "Great White Father"; and there is good reason perhaps for the great interest in sport which characterizes Bellamy's utopia. Games are organized, apparently, upon lines of industrial guild rivalry; just as one has sports nowadays between rival battleship squadrons perhaps; for "if bread is the first necessity of life, recreation is a second, and the nation caters for both." The demand for bread and circuses, our guide explains, is recognized in the year 2000 as a wholly reasonable one. Both work and play are external to the citizen's inner trends and interests; and we should not be surprised if an infantile element predominated in the character of this happy republic.
This externalism, this impersonality, seems to characterize the whole scene. We follow Julius West and his new love, Edith, into a modern shop, where everything is displayed by sample, and an order for goods is sent to a central warehouse, and along with undoubted economies of space and time, we note that there is an almost complete absence of personal contacts or relationships: more than ever the worker has become a cog in the machine, more than ever he deals with a thin, barren, abstract world of paper notations, more
than ever his desire for social contacts is dammed up; and so, more than ever, there must be occasion in this new age for stimulants and socialities beside which the roller coasters of Coney Island and the promiscuities of a modern dance hall would be insipid things. Bellamy does not show us what these compensatory institutions would be: but he has invented a high-powered engine of repression, and he does not fool us when he conceals the safety-valve. Unless there is a safety-valve his universal army, under a rigorous discipline for twenty-four years, is bound to blow up the works. We can guess when we read the cheap illustrated papers, when we go to the movies, when we watch the behavior of the crowds on Broadway, what this twenty-first century Utopia would be likeit would be all that a modern city is, exaggerated. In The New Society, Dr. Walter Rathenau drew a picture of a socialized modern society, moving along its present path without any change in its aims and ideals; and that nightmare of his must be added to Bellamy's dream in order to define it.
It is the same with every other institution. There is a big communal restaurant in which each family of the neighborhood has a private room; this is the place where the principal meal is ordered by the family, and served by young conscript waiters. Am I at fault if I point out that this universal hostelry is a little too elaborate and mechanical; that there is more promise of a genuine utopia in Plato's olives and cheese and beans, simply served, than in the "perfection of catering and cooking" which the new age boasts. So one could go down the line and enumerate the mechanical marvels which take the place of a fully humanized life; marvels like the telephone concerts and sermons which astoundingly
anticipate by thirty-odd years the radio broadcasting service which is now a prevalent mania in America. Are these things, as Aristotle would have said, the material bases of the good life, or are they substitutes for the good life? There may have been some doubt as to the answer in Bellamy's time; but I think there need not be any at present. In so far as these instruments are consonant with humanized purposes they are good; in so far as they are irrelevant they are so much rubbishidiotic rubbish. A free public library is a good thing; but a free public library devoted exclusively to distributing the novels of Gene Stratton Porter and the uplift books of Mr. Orison Swett Marden would not contribute so much as a useful platitude towards a vivid and stimulating society.
There is no escaping the problem of ends and the problem of ends, if I may be permitted a pun, belongs at the beginning. Subordinate to humanized ends, machinery and organizationyes, complicated machinery and organizationhave undoubtedly a useful contribution to make towards a good community; unsubordinated, or subordinated only to the engineer's conceptions of an efficient industrial equipment and personnel, the most innocent machine may be as humanly devastating as a Lewis gun. All this Bellamy overlooked in Looking Backward, and yetsomething remains.
What remains in Looking Backward is the honest passion that inspired the man; the play of generous impulses; the insistence that there is no fun for an ordinarily imaginative person in dining with Dives whilst Lazarus hangs around the table. Bellamy wanted everyone to be equally educated, so that everyone might be his companion; he wanted everyone to be
decently fed and sheltered; he wanted to take his share in the dirty work and to see that accidents of wealth did not keep other people from taking theirs. He wanted private life to be simple and public life to be splendid. He wanted men and women to mate with each other without permitting this relationship to be compromised by obligations to a father, a mother, or the butcher, the baker, and the grocer. He wanted the generous, the just, and the tender-hearted to be as well endowed as the cold-hearted, the greedy, and the self-seeking. He pleaded for an absence of artificiality and restraint in the relations of the sexes; for such a candor as has perhaps come into fashion againthank heaven!today, a candor which permits women physical freedom in dress, and a spiritual freedom in exhibiting their love, and giving it freely. All this is to the good. I do not question Bellamy's fine motives; I question only the outlets he imagined for them. There is a breach between Bellamy's conception of the good life and the structure he erected to shelter it. This breach is due, I believe, to an over-emphasis of the part that wholesale mechanical organization, directed by a handful of people, would play in such a reconstruction. If Bellamy sometimes exaggerated the bad in modern society, with its muddle of competitive privileges, he likewise overestimated the good that it contained; and he was more than fair to the present order of things when he made the future so closely in its image.