originally published February 13, 2013
You know what really bothers me? The present-day career opportunities for philosophers are remarkably few. Nowadays if you come up with the ideal means for crafting a likely unattainable utopian society, the closest you’ll get to seeing it realized is when you sell the idea to a reality show. But it wasn’t always so.
In 1808, Charles Fourier, the French son of a small businessman (not clear on whether he owned a small business or was simply rather diminutive), published his first book. Fourier was a pioneer of utopian socialism, devising a vision for the future that was bold, humanist, and ultimately completely unrealistic.
But it was interesting.
According to Fourier, the secret to a society’s success was cooperation. Workers should be compensated according to their contribution to the society, and everybody needs to put in their share. Fourier wasn’t about class elimination; there would still be rich and poor folk. But the higher pay should go to the people who did jobs others might not enjoy. So in Fourier’s world, the guy who cleans up the hardened vomit off the carpet after New Year’s Eve should make more money than the lucky schmuck who sits around a government office on the taxpayer’s dime, writing articles about 200-year-old philosophers for the internet.
Not sure I’m on board, but let’s keep going.
Fourier envisioned us all living in communities called phalanxes, built around four-story apartment buildings known as phalanstères. The rich live up top, the poor live underneath. As for who gets which job, well, Fourier had it all figured out.
First, he hated the Jews. I know, I don’t get it – his ideas are frothing over the rim with optimism, idealism and good ol’ fashioned hippie righteousness. But he considered the act of capitalist trade to be evil and linked with the Jews. In his phalanx, the Jews would be farmers. That’s it.
According to Fourier, humans share twelve common passions, which – when portioned out according to a person’s interests and desires – works out to 810 types of character. Throw in one of each gender and each phalanx should contain 1620 people. Once the world wakes up and climbs on board the phalanx train, there would be six million phalanxes around the globe, enough to comfortably house 9.7 billion people.
Well we know this isn’t going to happen. Who would want to live in a phalanx anyway? Certainly not the Jews. But wait, Charles Fourier didn’t just want to build ideal communities. He wanted to build ideal communities with lots of gratuitous humping.
Yes, Fourier made particular mention of jilted lovers in his plans. One of the jobs in the phalanx was that of a ‘fairy’, whose responsibilities included helping the lovelorn to feel… better. And for newbies to the phalanx, one would simply have to calculate which of the 810 personality types they have, then consult the handy cue-card index to determine which types they should be seeking for casual sex. This is all part of Fourier’s grand scheme.
Creative activity will rise up from liberated passion, according to Fourier. Live amongst a perpetual orgy and the seminal fluids of industry, agriculture and craft will spurt into the face of the community, gelling its hair together in goopy knots of unity and staining the sheets of greater society with progress.
Fourier placed women on the same tier as men – he is actually credited for coining the term ‘feminism’ in 1837. Gay rights? You bet. Fourier felt that homosexuality was no big deal, and that it should integrate seamlessly into the skronk-fest he’d envisioned. Marriage was one thing he took off the table – he felt that marriage by nature subjugated women’s rights.
There’s no question, Charles Fourier had it all planned out. It wasn’t a perfect system, but he felt it would work. And he had followers who bought in also. A number of phalanxes, or phalanx-like communities popped up in an effort to bring his utopia to life.
Like Utopia, for example. That’s Utopia, Ohio.
Founded in 1844 by a gaggle of Fourier followers (Fourierites?), Utopia never really got a chance to thrive. Within three years, the steam had gushed out of the community and it dissipated. They tried to get the Fourier ball rolling again, but the town was bought out by a guy named John O. Wattles, who moved in with a bunch of Spiritualists – a religion that subscribes to the belief that the dead remain on earth in spirit-form. These people were even less grounded in reality than the proto-hippies who believed they could form a 35,000-year utopian paradise on earth in Ohio.
Days after moving the town hall, brick by brick, to the edge of the Ohio River, the river flooded and killed a large portion of the population. The good news: at least the Spiritualists who survived had some company that could prove or disprove their faith.
Another attempt at Fourierism occurred at La Reunion in Texas. The colony was founded in 1855 by Victor Prosper Considerant, a France native and a strong believer in Fourier’s principles. He moved a heap of colonists across the ocean to try out their own utopia. Problem was, their areas of expertise (brewing, watchmaking, store-keeping) were not the ideal skills for settling a new colony in the unpredictable Texas weather.
A blizzard the following May killed their crops, then a drought in the summer brought a grasshopper infestation. By 1860, only five years after the colony began, they were absorbed by the neighboring city of Dallas. Chances are, there’s a Burger King and a Payless Shoes where this idealist haven of art and sex once stood.
In 1844, another batch of Fourier-lovers set up the North American Phalanx near what is now Red Bank, New Jersey. This was the one community that came closest to pulling it off. They had a steady economy, a properly-conceived structure, and regular elections. Problems popped up in 1853 when disagreements over women’s rights and abolitionist movements split the group. Some members wanted to bring an official religious affiliation to the town (probably not Judaism; just guessing).
The same invisible powers that would come to flood, freeze, and infest the other utiopian exercises decided that the North American Phalanx needed to go. A fire destroyed much of the town in 1854. By the end of 1856, they were no more. One building survived, but another fire snagged that in 1972. Fourier’s utopia just isn’t ready to happen yet.
So what can we learn from this? Okay, even in the eyes of the most optimistic dreamer, the Jews can still get screwed over. But Fourier had polished up a few gems of conceptual brilliance in his vision of phalanx life. And in addition to his forward-thinking views on homosexuality and feminism, he had a few environmental predictions as well, like the North Pole eventually warming up to Mediterranean levels.
Only, he saw this as a good thing, not an ice-melting-flooding-everywhere thing. Oh, and he also predicted the oceans would lose all their salt content and become lemonade. Seriously.
Nobody’s perfect, I guess.