Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Fistful of Utopias - Part I

A Fistful of Utopias:  Part I
Eva Kosinski

I spend a good deal of time poking around in the Kindle book section for works that are interesting, and most importantly, budget friendly. I came across "8 Novels of Utopia" for a grand total of $.99 and thought this was interesting....many were from the 19th century. So I decided to look to see how far back the tendency went to find the perfect society via literature. I found the namesake for the concept, Sir Thomas More's "Utopia," the same Thomas More who was Lord High Chancellor for Henry VIII, later beheaded by said King for refusing to call the King the head of the Church, and later canonized by the Catholic Church). "Utopia" was published in 1515. Then I remembered Plato's "Republic" dating back, according to Wikipedia, to 380BC. (comments on that one, I will leave to the many college philosophy courses that deal with its complexities)

It seems to this very minute, people are still discussing the idea of a perfect society, one that would rid itself of elitist control, poverty, injustice, and bias, but to date, few have actually managed to come off the written page and enter the reality that we live in. Various attempts have been tried, usually resulting in either extreme poverty with power concentrated at the top, or total economic collapse. There's an old saw that gets quoted from time to time, usually referring to death and taxes: "If someone had figured out how to deal with them, they long since would have cashed in and made a fortune." That doesn't mean they don't continue to try. Should you have any doubt, go to google images and type in Utopia. Across the years there are dozens of books, and more and more editions of, and discussions of, Utopian concepts.
Utopia is like that. Try one approach (abandon money completely, for example) and see how that works, and a bunch of unanticipated problems pop up. Fix a couple of those, and they are connected to three others. Change the parameters so the theory works, and it becomes clear that humans have to change who they are and how they think, in order to conform to the new ideal. Or, more often, they have to be forced into it by whatever means necessary.

Writing a utopian novel is a huge game of whack-a-mole, yet, generation after generation, it appears we believe it's supremely important that there are always new contenders taking a stab at making a workable ideal society. I suppose a high-intensity election year, where it seems everyone and their uncle claim to not only have all the answers, but the best plan to fix it all, is a good time to take a peek at what some of our greatest minds have come up with, warts and all, either to see how far we have come, how our ideals have changed, or how much we have yet to do, in order to get even close to Utopia.

I'm looking, in this series, at about 10 books, but there are many more out there, some sci-fi, some political, some fantasy. All have societies seeming so far advanced that they might have solved the problems of governance, but always there's some fly in the ointment, some glaring flaw, some horrible reality, that is necessary to get the society to work. Maybe the best we can hope for is to go back through the options to see which pitfalls we should avoid, and get some understanding of just how many variables are in motion, and sort out whether we believe the authors' views about how humans cope with change.
UTOPIA by Sir Thomas More (1515)
(sorry, no image available - copyright)
Available at Amazon (free) kindle edition

Fed up with the machinations at court, More describes a trip that he took to Flanders (a place he did actually travel to in real life). In this novel, he is actually the main character, or at least the narrator. On this trip, he purportedly is introduced to a certain Raphael Hythloday, a traveler who has been to a completely unique society on a far away island, one without monarchy, courtiers, poverty, and with great hoards of surplus goods, in which all citizens share, to "allow the people as much time as is necessary for the improvement of their minds in which they think the happiness of life consists." The book consists of Raphael being questioned by More and others about what he saw and how the society was constructed, with More a silent listener, passing no judgments.

More's Utopia is not only a planned community, but a planned society, with many, many rules and regulations. Communities are of a size that is manageable by (short term) elected officials, committed to the success of the community. People can change communities, but because they are considered resources (able workers, etc.) the community that accepts them must pay the community they left, as they are depriving them of a resource. Government has opinions on the matter of morality (no real surprise here, as More, before getting into politics was planning to become a priest), and looks severely on adultery and divorce. Family size is limited by law (but large). The Prince (for life) is chosen by the representatives of 300 families, from a list of 4 voted by the people. Big issues are voted on by a council, taking input from magistrates who ask the people for their opinion. Everyone is involved in one way or another in agriculture, since that serves the rest of the community, and makes it self-sufficient.

As is often the case, the devil is in the details. When the rule is every town has 30 families, and every city six thousand families (including the areas surrounding it) what happens when a settlement grows? What do you do with the children who get old enough to marry and start their own families? How are marriages planned in such a society, and what happens when divorce can only happen when it's approved by the Senate? If the society takes care of everyone, how can one justify having too many children? How can adultery lead to a life of slavery, and can those slaves ever be brought back into society? Can one accused ever defend themselves when the society has completely eliminated lawyers? Can the old bugaboos of ignorance and want ever be abolished? Can what is put in their place ever be fair and just?

More tries his best to fit it all together, but while some issues may have set easily on the minds of the people of the 14th century, to the modern ear, concepts like "wives serve their husbands, and children their parents, and always the younger serves the elder (right down to acting as waiters and waitresses at the dining halls until they are old enough to marry) sound pretty untenable. Dining includes lectures on morality from the older members. Greed is considered something that only occurs when there isn't enough to go around, so a father "takes whatsoever he or his family stand in need of, without either paying for it or leaving anything in exchange. There is no reason for giving a denial to any person, since there is such plenty of everything among them." The absolute worst jobs are given to those who have committed crimes, (like adultery - not likely that would fly today) who have become slaves, always chained. To modern ears, the concept that everyone must work, and they don't get paid, actually constitutes slavery already. We wonder if people today would ever choose to be part of such a system, or would they have any choice?

NEWS FROM NOWHERE William Morris (1890)
part of the 8 Novels of Utopia

Available at Amazon (kindle)

After a perfectly normal day, followed by a lengthy evening of drinking and political discussion, William Guest wakes to find himself in an odd state of confusion. To clear his head, he takes a walk outside and ends up at a small pier, where a boatman waits for customers. Figuring a ride would be just the thing, he finds the boatman to be very strange, with clothing and a manner he'd have expected from a university graduate, adding to his confusion. Waking further, and taking a good look at the shore line, he's stunned to discover he's in a place that's very different from the England he knew when he went to bed

The people all seem really happy, but they don't use money. In fact, it's an insult to offer it. People move about from place to place, always having some place to stay, even if it's tents in a field, to follow work, which is not considered a chore, but an opportunity to do something new and get some exercise. Sometimes it's bringing in crops, sometimes it's metalworking jewelry. Industrial machinery has been abandoned in favor of hard work and craftsmanship. The railroads have been dismantled, and people pitch in on one anothers' projects; whatever needs doing finds willing hands.

Universities have disappeared and are now housing for whoever needs a place to crash. While a few folks described as "old grumblers" are completely dismayed at the fact that nobody reads anymore and no new books are being written, most people don't miss the intellectual pursuits since they now have true equality. Craftsmanship and the arts are highly valued and voluntary trade is the order of the day. William, having no skills to speak of, as he'd been born from wealth, fears that he has no place in this new order, but finds he is highly sought after because he remembers English history from earlier times. He begins to feel at home in this new environment.

Then, as quickly as before, he goes to sleep only to find himself, to his utter dismay, back in the present, at which point he attributes his adventures to a vision of a better world, and sets out to write it all down so others can understand it.

LOOKING BACKWARD, from 2000 to 1887 
 by Edward Bellamy (1887)

Available at Amazon (kindle)

A quick note here -- Bellamy's work was so well received that Bellamy societies sprang up all over the US and the term "Bellamyism" was coined.

Imagine being a very well to do insomniac, so sensitive to every sound that any small noise can keep you from sleeping. For self-preservation, Julian West constructs an underground bunker, away from the hubub of the industrialized (and currently plagued by strikes and general riotous unrest) City of Boston, where thankfully, he can finally sleep soundly, with the aid of a Mesmerist trance so deep his valet must wake him in the morning. Yet, one morning, he wakes to find himself in a completely different location, surrounded by people he doesn't know. He's been transported, courtesy of a series of tragic events (a house fire and the death of his valet) to the year 2000, having been found in a state of suspended animation by a construction crew digging the foundation for a new building.

Now in the home of Dr. Leete, who managed to pull him out of his trance, he is having an extremely difficult time getting his head around this new century. Julian begins the slow process of understanding all the ins and outs of this new world, over 100 years away from anything he's known. From the extreme societal unrest of 1887, he discovers the growth of an entire industrial army, coordinated by the government, with an amazing number of changes in the rules and regulations of everyday life.

How many questions would any of us have? Who won the election(s), and how did the riots work out? Did they just go away? What happened to our family and friends? As someone interested in politics, Julian had a lot of questions about how things got to be so drastically changed.

Bellamy's year 2000 Boston is at once painfully different and surprisingly up to date (it's sometimes hard to believe it was written in 1887). Absent the information about later inventions, like the auto, the airplane, and the computer, he manages to come up with what might be the earliest explanation of a credit card, technology that uses phone lines to wake sleepers with music piped into their rooms (he did forsee widespread use of electricity), and warehousing systems that would rival the old Sears & Roebuck or todays WalMart distribution centers.

How did society change? The history presented to Julian described happier times when there were lots of small concerns that completely valued their employees. However, capital concentrated in ever larger companies where people became simple cogs in the wheel, and unions (with which Julian was quite familiar) were needed to protect the workers from companies that no longer valued them. As companies grew in size, people saw them as a threat. Companies merged from many to only a few big monopolies, with the choking of competition and price fixing that entailed; to remove the temptation to individuals and syndicates, deemed to greedy to have that much power; all monopolies were finally nationalized, and all of the capital of the country consolidated. Small business, now seen as inefficient, was, in effect, gone, replaced by a more efficient centralized system of getting goods and services run completely by the government.  Military draft became the way to get workers. All earnings were paid by credit card. Anyone not willing to work was sent to jail on bread and water.

While The Road to Nowhere is more of a fantasy romp into a world of plenty and sunshine, lighthearted and interesting, "Looking Backward" is far darker, and has, in addition to its description of the new society as an unbridled success, some warnings and concerns about just what utopia really would involve, at a level of detail that brings it to life.

Bellamy's own life was haunted by various health issues, so he spent much time thinking, about what people would do, how society would develop, and the details he describes of the events that led to change are quite realistic. However, the requirements his utopian society needed to ensure its ideal structure, and the attitudes and beliefs he attributes to its inhabitants are both fascinating and chilling. Julian compares his 1887 to 2000 and makes peace with his new society, but there are elements that people today would find completely unacceptable.

Both "The Road to Nowhere" and "Looking Backward" are products of a time we rarely think of today, other than as "Steampunk." but many authors were testing the genres of fantasy and science fiction to come to an understanding of how humans behave in societies, and how their continued patterns could affect the future. "The Time Machine" by H. G. Wells, "She: A History of Adventure," and "King Solomon's Mines," by H. Rider Haggard, were all written around this time, a time of global exploration and adventure. The interest in utopia was continued in 1933, with "Lost Horizon," by James Hilton and there are far more examples right through to the present day.

We'll explore some newer and more contemporary examples in Part II of "A Fistful of Utopias."

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