Not so great utopias.

Author:Thies, Clifford
  1. Introduction

    In chapter 2, "The Great Utopia," of The Road to Serfdom (1944), F. A. Hayek distinguishes between the promise of socialism (economic equality) and the promise of democracy (political equality), contrasting the socialism proposed by French political and economic theorist Henri de Saint-Simon with the democracy observed by French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville. The utopian socialism envisioned by Saint-Simon is a fantasy. Real world socialism, as exhibited in Stalin's Russia, is totalitarian. Thus, the road to serfdom results from the pursuit of a mirage, something that has never been and that can never be, a make-believe form of socialism. In seeking this mirage, countries wind up in serfdom (see figure 1).

    Since the publication of Hayek's book, there have been many experiments with state socialism. Soviet communism has been joined by Chinese communism and also by various forms of socialism in the developing world. Central planning, rapid industrialism and import substitution, and collectivization of agriculture were widespread with the end of the colonial period. Results generally ranged from disastrous to disappointing. Most of these experiments proceeded along the road to serfdom until they ended in market-oriented reforms or in failure.

  2. The Utopian Socialists

    Saint-Simon (1760-1825), French philosopher Charles Fourier, and Welsh social reformer Robert Owen were early socialists. As characterized by Marx, they were "utopian socialists." (1) Saint-Simon, considered by his followers to be something of a prophet, argued that an enlightened class should organize society to eliminate poverty among the working class. (2) When he first made his proposal, he did not consider it to be revolutionary, and he imagined that the king of France might implement it. Soon thereafter, Saint-Simon saw his proposal to be revolutionary--indeed, to be a new religion. "The whole of society," he said, "ought to strive towards the amelioration of the moral and physical existence of the poorest class." For a time, it looked as though Saint-Simon's disciples might actually turn his ideas into a political movement. But his specific genesis of socialism dissipated after the French Revolution of July 1830.

    While Saint-Simon's ideas were never put to the test, those of the other two utopian socialists were. Owen (1771-1858) was a successful British industrialist who incorporated progressive ideas into his business. (3) For example, he opened company stores where his mill workers could buy goods at low prices. Because of such endeavors, Owen is regarded as a pioneer of cooperatives, as well as an early socialist. He is also recognized as an advocate of factory reform legislation. But, more than a reformer, Owen was a visionary. In A New View of Society (1972, see also 1973), Owen advocated the organization of workers and their families into self-sufficient communities, or communes, of 500 to 3,000 people.

    In 1825, two Owenite experiments were attempted, one in Orbiston, Scotland, and the other in New Harmony, Indiana. Both quickly failed, as did about a dozen subsequent attempts at Owenite communities in the United Kingdom and the United States. (4) Owen eventually rejected all religions and instead desired a spirit of universal charity. He sought what he thought to be a more perfect system of liberty and equality, ending the system of buying cheap and selling dear. In his old age, he converted to spiritualism and called upon Napoleon Bonaparte, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, William Shakespeare, and others to prepare the world for universal peace, charity, forbearance, and love.

    Fourier (1772-1837) (1957, 1968), like Owen, called for small-scale, self-sufficient communities, exactly 2,985,984 of them, that he called "phalanxes." This call was but one part of his new ordering of science, in which men would grow tails, the oceans would be made of lemonade, the earth would feature six moons, and the stars would copulate and reproduce themselves. Within the phalanxes, the wage system was to be replaced by a guaranteed living allowance and a division of profits based on work and capital investment. There would be special incentives for work that nobody wanted to do. However, Fourier believed that if work were arranged well, there would be a natural supply equal to every demand. For example, children could be used for cleaning sewers because they "love to wallow in the muck and play with dirty things" (Taylor 1982, p. 119).

    Just as Fourier saw workers reduced to slavery by economic liberalism, he saw women reduced to prostitution by marriage. For a long time, his thoughts on human sexuality were merely implicit in the large communal bedrooms of his phalanxes, with the children housed separately. But, with the long delayed publication of The New Amorous World, it became clear that, just as there was a minimum income, there would be a sexual minimum that was to be provided by an "angelic group" of extraordinary beauty (Beecher and Bienvenu 1971).

    Fourier did not think of his proposals as entertainment but as serious political economy. This is because he was mad. He waited for philanthropists to underwrite his phalanxes, advertising in the local newspaper the hours he would be ready to receive them at his house, and--growing frustrated at their nonarrival--he shot himself in the head. But his wild criticisms of the capitalist system proved irresistible to those inclined to radical ideas. In France and America, he gained tremendous followings, and dozens of phalanxes were organized during the 1840s. Almost all of these attempts failed in one to three years. Hence, his followers came to be known as four-yearists.

    The most successful Fourierist colony in America was the North American Phalanx, founded in Monmouth County, New Jersey, in 1843. It made major concessions to individualism. Although the colony featured a three-story phalanstery (a self-contained structure housing a cooperative community), most of its members, the number of which peaked at 150...

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