The Frenchman Who Invented Utopia
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we need dreamers.
Charles Fourier was so obsessed with flowers as a child that he spent hours holed up in his bedroom tending to hundreds of blooms, carefully arranging them by color and size. At one point, the entire bedroom floor was covered in thick soil, with flowers literally growing out of it.
Decades later, Fourier would adopt a similarly possessive and eccentric approach as he wrote a book about his vision of Utopia, an imagined place where everything is perfect. The 19th-century French visionary — regarded by many as a precursor to Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud — was fiercely protective of his growing set of notebooks dedicated to the the New Amorous World (Le Nouveau Monde Amoureux). In these notebooks, Fourier — who also foresaw an age in which oranges could grow in Warsaw and seawater would turn to lemonade as a result of climate change — laid out details for a society called Harmony, his name for Utopia.
He saw no reason why men and women should spend all their lives or even all day at just one kind of work.
In Harmony, people would live together in peaceful communities called “phalanxes,” free from capitalism, which Fourier believed was “not only degrading and starving millions of people physically, but also deprived them of necessary emotional satisfactions,” writes Jonathan Beecher in Charles Fourier: The Visionary and His World, one of the few English-language biographies about the utopian thinker.
In Harmony, people would work on many different things, in pleasant surroundings and among friends and lovers, supported by a guaranteed income. Fourier, who himself led a drab life, was frustrated for years by his work as a traveling salesman and clerk. He saw no reason why men and women should spend all their lives or even all day at just one occupation. So every day, after work, he spent hours devising his utopian realm, basing it on an intricate system of psychological classification taken from reading the newspaper. According to The Faber Book of Utopias, Fourier calculated there were 810 personality types.
“You’d have had more fun in Fourier’s communities by far, if you put together the idea of passionate attraction, many forms of labor, multiple meals (he recommended five a day) and constant cultural activity,” says Gregory Claeys, professor of the history of political thought at Royal Holloway, University of London. “It’s a mind-boggling assemblage of the active life.” Unlike other communitarians of the early 19th century who strove for community interaction, Fourier was “the odd person out” for dreaming of a world of erotic freedom and feminism, which was a “nonstarter” at that time, says Claeys.
Growing up with four sisters and a domineering mother — his father died when Fourier was 9 — Fourier quickly realized that the emancipation of women was key to the liberation of mankind. Tackling eerily familiar gender equality issues, from equal education opportunities to simple freedoms from the “tedium of housework,” Fourier lobbied for women’s rights and is even credited with having coined the term “feminism” in 1837. He felt so strongly that women were equals that he considered traditional marriage as potentially harmful to a woman’s rights and thus never married himself.
Fourier’s ultimate goal, which caused a stir among puritanical thinkers, was the liberation of all “sexual minorities,” including “lesbians, sodomites, fetishists and flagellants,” writes Beecher. The seemingly salacious details of his utopian vision turned off even some of Fourier’s most devout disciples who chose to ignore large swathes of his doctrine. More conservatively minded communes emerged around the U.S., adopting many of Fourier’s ideas, including Utopia, Ohio, now considered a ghost town; La Reunion, near present-day Dallas; the North American Phalanx, near Red Bank, New Jersey; and Brook Farm, Massachusetts, one of whose founders was Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Promising too much, the utopian ideal was soon mired in financial insolvency, a shortage of skilled workers and the inability to successfully farm, which meant that Fourier-inspired societies dwindled within several years. “These new social systems were foredoomed as Utopian; the more completely they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure phantasies [sic],” German philosopher Friedrich Engels wrote of Fourier’s ideas in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.
But with the dawn of automation upon us, Fourier’s dreams could be put to the test as a more dystopian outlook takes hold. Oxford University researchers have estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated within the next two decades, as AI and robotics overhaul our economy. “It is the next vital stage of the process of industrialization that began in the middle of the 18th century,” says Claeys. This will mean “in principle you have vastly more free time,” he adds, nodding to Fourier’s vision of pursuing a more meaningful existence. Of course, there will be a huge price to pay with fewer jobs to go around. “We may well see social and political rebellions, even revolutions,” Claeys warns.