If utopia is supposed to be the ideal and perfect place, where everyone lives in harmony, then why do so many of them turn out to suck? To get an answer, let's go to the source: Thomas More, whose 1516 travelogue Utopia gave us the word, a pun meaning "no place" and "perfect place." More's Utopia describes an island where everyone is happy and smiling and living in divinely inspired synchronization. Told with verve and a sly wit, Utopia is one of the foundational texts of contemporary science fiction as well as utopian thought.
But More wasn't just a writer of fantastic tales. He was also a politician and one-time Undersheriff of London. As such, More was not only an enthusiastic upholder of a radically unequal and oppressive social order, but also an advocate for burning 16th century heretics. Live by the sword, die by the sword: in 1535 Henry VIII beheaded More and anyone else who didn't support his accession to Supreme Head of the Church of England. The violence of More's historical period is never far from the surface of More's island Utopia, where a single act of adultery is punishable by slavery and serial adulterers are punished with death. If More's narrator had looked past the happy smiling faces of Utopia, what fear and violence might he have seen?
Yet utopia—a word that has come to represent a hope that the future could surpass the present—persists. "As long as necessity is socially dreamed," Guy Debord says in his 1973 film The Society of the Spectacle, "dreaming will remain a social necessity." Debord meant that in conditions of inequality and injustice, people will always imagine a better place. What constitutes "better" is, however, a matter of much dispute. We dream our fears as well as hopes, reflecting all the agonies and contradictions of the waking world; in dreams, demons rise from our darkest places. This is the dangerous element in utopian aspiration, the monster behind the smiling face. Utopias can embody the highest hopes of humankind and frameworks for continuous evolution, but they can also reflect our worst fears and sickest appetites—not to mention a mania for power and control that is latent in every person. "What a strange scene you describe and what strange prisoners," says Glaucon, Socrates' disciple, in Plato's Republic, the template for the stupid utopia. "They are just like us," answers the master.
Told in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, one of the earliest and most primitive utopias is all about limits, discipline, and hierarchy. The number of inhabitants of the Republic, pronounced Socrates, should be limited to 5,040 in order to maximize conformity and control. In this most "just" of cities, women and children are property, for how could they be otherwise? "For men born and educated like our citizens," Socrates says, "the only way of arriving at the right conclusion about the possession and use of women and children is to follow the path on which we originally started, when we said that the men were to be the guardians and watchdogs of the herd." Quite naturally, the State would be ruled over by men most like Socrates himself, philosopher-kings, "the best of our citizens." This guardian class would live communally and apart from the herd: "having wives and children in common, they must live in common houses and meet at common meals."
Exactly how stupid is Plato's Republic, and who am I to call one of history's greatest philosophers "stupid"? Is Plato's time simply too different from our own for us to pass judgment? I don't think so, for The Republic lives on in the rhetoric of contemporary political movements of both right and left—every elitist and technocratic fantasy of our time has grown from the seed of The Republic. Plato would not have understood the term "dehumanization" as we understand it—he'd never, of course, seen a factory floor or a gas chamber—but when his ideas have been enacted in places like the Soviet Union, Mussolini's Italy, or modern state-capitalist China, they have proven brutally dehumanizing, his apparat of "guardians" thoroughly corrupted by power.
Though protected from criticism by the moldy gauze of antiquity, Plato and his teacher/mouthpiece Socrates are not so different from us; they had their fears and prejudices just as we have ours. We still live in the fabled cave Socrates describes in The Republic, watching the shadows on the walls and thinking them reality. He thought that only the philosopher could throw off his shackles in the sensible world and leave the cave for the heaven of Ideas; the philosopher alone could wield this pure knowledge in ruling the Republic. In didn't occur to Plato/Socrates that the World of Forms beyond the cave might only be another shadow or even hallucination. Plato could not escape the trap into which any utopian can fall: he didn't believe enough in his own fallibility.
The City on the Hill
More than just a source of gold, in the Christian imagination the New World represented the triumph of the natural ideal over a decadent European culture. Naked and innocent "Indians," living in communitarian grace, appeared immediately in the writings of Conquistadors and would serve to bolster a utopian image in Europe of the New World. (This chimera persists, mutated, in New Age idealizations of indigenous culture.) When the natives wouldn't conform to that image, in due course it became necessary destroy their villages so that their souls might be saved. "They are not fit to command or lead," said one exemplary Catholic of those he deemed his racial inferiors, "but to be commanded and lead."
Up North, their Calvinist counterparts arrived and set about creating a Protestant utopia of everlasting hierarchy. "We must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill," preached Massachusetts governor John Winthrop. "God Almighty in His most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission." The New World was to be More's Utopia, at last made real. In Salem sixty years later, witches would burn. A Native American apocalypse was not far behind, followed by Filipinos, El Salvadorans, Vietnamese, Iraqis, and anyone else who ran afoul of this utopian marriage of theocratic and imperial aspiration.
The flip side of the myth of the Noble, Adamic Savage is the racist scapegoat. It is historically, pathetically, frighteningly commonplace for a certain kind of individual to absolve him- or herself of all evil by assigning it exclusively to another racial group or social outcast: Jews, gypsies, Tutsis, Arabs, queers, etc. In such a view, achieving utopia becomes a simple matter of liquidating or expelling the offending group. In the late 19th century, Elisabeth Nietzsche-Förster—sister of Friedrich Nietzsche, who described her as a "vengeful anti-Semitic goose"—sailed with 14 German families to Paraguay to found a racially pure, socialist, vegan utopia along the remote Aguaraya River. The settlers sought "an authentic rebirth of racial feeling," but things didn't work out as well as they'd hoped. Crops didn't grow; sand fleas and snakes nipped at their pure alabaster ankles; many fell victim to malaria. Within two years Elisabeth's husband Bernhard Förster, leader of the colony and a vicious anti-Semite, drank and poisoned himself to death. Elisabeth slunk back to Germany, where after her famous brother's death she ruthlessly reedited his works so that the Nazis would adopt him as their pet philosopher.
Meanwhile, back in South America, Nueva Germania's school, church, and opera house sank into ruin. After World War II, it reportedly sheltered fugitive Nazi war criminals, including Dr. Josef Mengele, who conducted horrible experiments on inmates at Auschwitz. Today, Nueva Germania is still a town, one of Paraguay's poorest, of several thousand subsistence farmers. Some of the old people still speak German and sing their German songs. I have read that it is difficult to tell many of them apart from the natives; over the past century, the Aryan settlers have interbred with the darker-skinned natives. Perhaps the ghosts of Elisabeth and Bernhard Förster wander among this town of half-breeds; if there's any justice, it will be their own private version of hell.
"We have bred a race of psychic hybrids," said early 20th century feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "and the moral qualities of hybrids are well known." Whatever does she mean? "Marry an Anglo-Saxon to an African or Oriental," she writes elsewhere, "and their child has a dual nature." This, we are led to understand, would be a bad thing. While contemporaries like Looking Backward author Edward Bellamy foresaw a globalized future in which humanity would blend together, economically, politically, and sexually, Gilman deeply feared such a development. She wasn't alone; her era gave birth to hysterical racial fears manifest in discriminatory immigration laws and crackpot forms of eugenics. Her 1915 utopian novel Herland depicts a colony of women "of Aryan stock, once in contact with the best civilization," isolated from the rest of the world but surrounded by the indigenous people of South America. The women reproduce through parthenogenesis, giving birth only to girls.
The result is, of course, a pure and perfect society: "You see," says the castaway male narrator, "they had no wars. They had no kings, and no priests, and no aristocracies. They were sisters, and as they grew, they grew together; not by competition, but by united action." See what can be accomplished if you just get rid of the biological group that most offends your sensibilities? A racially and sexually homogeneous society will, according to Gilman, quite naturally, and with apparently very little effort, blossom into utopia. While Euro-American feminist fans of Gilman, whose story "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a staple of women's-studies classes, would prefer to separate out Gilman's racism from her brand of feminism, in fact the two are inseparable. Gilman is not so different a figure from Elisabeth Nietzsche-Förster; perhaps in death they both haunt Nueva Germania, united in their ideal of sisterhood.
The Radiant City
The Industrial Revolution gave the world a new idea of the ideal society. "Try sniffing the abominable stench behind the piles of books," wrote Japanese Futurist Hirato Renkichi in 1921. "How many times superior is the fresh scent of gasoline!" This is a line that Beatty, fire chief of Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, would have loved. In the first three decades of the 20th century, an architectural aesthetic emerged that demanded absolute mastery over nature and necessity. Movements like Futurism and Constructivism worshipped machines, fetishized war ("war—the world's only hygiene," wrote Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti), rejected the burdens of history, and embraced totalitarian governments like Fascist Italy or Soviet Russia. Their modernist allegiance to technology concealed a cavernous, angry irrationalism.
In the 1920s, Futurism mutated into more rigorous and less flamboyant architectural and design movements like the Bauhaus. The Taylorist urban designs of that period were each a nightmare of mathematical perfection, but few went as far as the Swiss theoretician Le Corbusier. His 1935 book The Radiant City was dedicated, simply and tellingly, "To Authority"—this during the years of Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler. To Le Corbusier, a world of standardized building materials and assembly-line production required military-style industrial and social centralization. The inhabitants of his ideal Radiant City—"a machine for living in"—would reside in self-contained high-rises containing fitness, cultural, educational, and social facilities that would unite all social classes, cultures, and spheres of life in a single geometric grid. It is in many ways the natural descendent of severe, mathematical Renaissance utopias like Campanella's 1623 City of the Sun, in which a priest class, reminiscent of Plato's philosopher-kings, would monitor the city's virtue from a tower at its center. In the 20th century this social and architectural vision would be harshly criticized even as it shaped buildings throughout the First and Second Worlds, such as self-contained high-rises on the outskirts of London (dissected by J.G. Ballard in his 1975 novel High-Rise), Czech communist panelaky, corporate office parks, and federal housing projects. Each imagined a kind of gleaming social egalitarianism; in time they crumbled and came to express savage social and economic disparities.
The situationist "New Babylon" negated Le Corbusier's grid even as it embraced his ambition to reduce and erase the individual through environmental manipulation. Led by philosopher and filmmaker Guy Debord, the Situationist International was founded in 1957 to discover new ways to live—called "situations"—in dystopian capitalist cities, aiming "to form a unitary human milieu in which separations such as work/leisure or public/private will finally be dissolved." Sculptor and architect Constant (one name only) was one of the few situationists to attempt a utopian projection of their ideas. Sounding more like a bong-hitting Jules Verne than a Marxist builder of boulevards, Constant rhapsodized about a city he called New Babylon, where labyrinthine, modifiable sections induce unified ambience through the control of sound, lighting, and weather. Increasing automation, he writes, "will create a need for leisure" that demands "a continuous construction on pillars . . . in which premises for living, pleasure, etc., are suspended . . . leaving the ground free for circulation and public meetings." Space travel, muses Constant, "may influence this development, since bases established on other planets will immediately raise the problem of sheltered cities." Liberated from work and cut off from nature, the noncitizens of Constant's city live in a continuous drift without a fixed place of residence.
It's fascinating, but there is something repellent in the universalizing totality of Constant's New Babylon. There are no neighbors in New Babylon, no dirt, no greenery, no culture outside the situation itself—nothing to sully the cigarette-smoking perfection of its Parisian ideal. New Babylon actually had a great deal in common with supposed enemies like Le Corbusier (criticized for "cadaverous rigidity"), particularly in its yearning for technology to liberate humanity from nature and our own sense of self, striving to mold the subject through environmental manipulation. In many ways, both the Radiant City and New Babylon are fairly typical mid-20th century science-fiction cities: gleaming, skin-deep Epcot Centers deeply estranged from nature, suspicious of true community, and fearful of individuality.
Like many other vanguardist groups of the left, the Situationist International sought to achieve doctrinal purity by constantly expelling members who didn't fit with the leader's vision. Constant was pressured to resign from the S.I. in 1960, his urban designs criticized by Debord as "public relations for the integration of the masses into capitalist technological civilization," but his work remains integral to the situationist legacy.
The Postwar American Suburb
Historian Robert Fishman calls American suburbia a "bourgeois utopia," whose hopes for community stability were founded "on the shifting sands of land speculation," backed up by racially discriminatory covenants and lending standards. The postwar American suburb, each a Nueva Germania of the soul, organized men's life around commutes and women's life around the home: the result was absent fathers, isolated mothers, and alienated children, who seldom knew anyone of a different race. In providing for the material needs of the growing middle class, the suburb created social and spiritual cavities that numerous social movements—from the 1960s New Left to today's Christian fundamentalism—have tried to fill.
According to census data, today the middle-income suburb is actually disappearing, drowning between the Scylla of racially exclusive gated communities and the Charybdis of ethnically diverse subdivisions. The poorest suffer from a lack of public services, lousy schools, and little in the way of parks or squares that might provide some sense of community. The most affluent suburbs are often populated by "relos," executive nomads who move every few years to keep their careers on track, never putting down roots, never investing in the community beyond the gated neighborhoods in which they own their homes. "There's no there there," said Gertrude Stein; the American suburb is still the definitive "no place," an empty parking lot sitting where our past and future should be.
The High Frontier
"Every day of continued exponential growth brings the world system closer to the ultimate limits of that growth," writes a team of MIT scientists in the classic 1972 study Limits of Growth. "A decision to do nothing is a decision to increase the risk of collapse." For Princeton physicist Gerard K. O'Neill—and for a generation of astrofuturists—the solution lay in space colonization. In his 1977 book The High Frontier, O'Neill, sounding like a real-estate salesman, paints an idyllic picture of high-orbital suburbs complete with shopping malls, golf courses, manicured lawns, and perpetual Southern California weather. In classic utopian fashion, O'Neill brings his future to life through a letter-home narration by new space colonists. "You asked about our government," write the narrators Edward and Jenny. "Legally, all communities are under the jurisdiction of the Energy Satellites Corporation (ENSAT) which was set up as a multinational profit making consortium. ENSAT keeps us on a fairly loose rein as long as productivity and profits remain high." Though there are company town-hall meetings, we are assured that everyone is "much too busy to make a hobby of electioneering." While this anemic, privatized version of democracy may sound ideal to O'Neill, his high frontier makes my blood run cold. As with the visitor to More's Utopia, Edward and Jenny might do well to ask themselves what violence lies behind the marketing.
In the 1981 sequel, The High Frontier, 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future, O'Neill takes his narrator Eric to a utopian Earth that has been radically changed by solar power and high-orbital manufacturing. O'Neill envisions a garden suburb called Waterford, Pennsylvania, which is enclosed, like the Radiant City and New Babylon, in a temperature-controlled dome. In Waterford, surveillance and security are total: all citizens wear "credit anklets" that monitor all their movements while facilitating purchase of consumer goods—a high-tech version of Campanella's City of the Sun. Culturally, Waterford is as white-bread as Grosse Pointe, Michigan. "The most successful nations [are] those with homogenous populations," opines one of Eric's guides, "because homogeneity eliminated one source of violent conflict."
O'Neill would like for us to buy the plot of land he's selling, but I would advise the reader to first spend some time on his islands in space. Of course, you don't have to get on a spaceship to do it. Just hop in your car. Drive until you see a Wal-Mart. Get off the highway. Keep driving. When the place you're in looks like any other place, then stop—there should be plenty of parking. Get out and take a look around. Is this really the future that you want?
Since the publication of Robert Heinlein's 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress—in which a lunar colony secedes from earth to establish an anarchocapitalist society—libertarian novelists have turned to imagining what writer Ken MacLeod has called "libertarias," utopias that allow individuals to freely pursue their self-interest without the interference of a state. Unlike most classic utopias, libertarias seek Darwinian competition instead of peace and harmony. The result may not be a "good" society in the conventional sense, but it is one that allows "man to be true to his nature as a predator," as L. Neil Smith puts it. Smith's 1993 novel Pallas is set on an asteroid colony established by billionaire industrialist "Wild Bill" Curringer, based on the philosophy of Mirelle Stein (who is obviously a stand-in for philosopher-dominatrix Ayn Rand). On their sprawling homesteads and in their citified saloons, each well-armed Pallatian cultivates a folksy accent and tinkers with quaintly Victorian machinery, having no truck with laws or government. The only "worm in the apple" of Pallas is the Greeley Memorial Utopian Project, a Stalinist commune governed by the villainous Gibson Altman.
Filled with unintentionally amusing scenarios and chapter-long rants against vegetarianism, agriculture, and public transportation, Pallas tells the rough-and-tumble tale of Emerson Ngu, who escapes the Greeley Project to become the wealthy and sharp-shooting hero of the asteroid. The novel's explicit nostalgia for the Wild West would be kitschy fun if it weren't so rigidly ideological. Smith is like most American libertarian sci-fi writers in that he's essentially a small-town boy trapped in a big world populated by people and ideas he doesn't understand, but you don't need to agree with Smith's politics to understand his book's appeal. In a world of limits imposed by nature and history, libertarias like Pallas—or, for that matter, O'Neill's High Frontier—represent a powerful vision of escape.
When William Gibson coined the word cyberspace in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, he conceived of "the Net" as more than a mere communications medium. For Gibson's lumpen, punk rock characters, cyberspace is utopia, literally "no place," but also a Platonic "consensual hallucination" and escape from the stricken, corporate-run sprawl outside. Within two decades of Gibson's prescient novel, the dot-com era turned the San Francisco Bay Area into a vast Potemkin village of 24-year-old millionaires and 24-hour raves, spawning a wave of utopian nonsense unseen in America since the late 1960s. The Internet became a virtual redux of Fishman's bourgeois utopia, the information superhighway as digital libertaria.
"Over the next decade, computer networks will expand their bandwidth by factors of thousands and reconstruct the entire US economy in their image," wrote George Gilder, the right-wing Timothy Leary of the Internet boom, in 1994. "TV will expire and transpire into a new cornucopia of choice and empowerment . . . Hollywood and Wall Street will totter and diffuse to all points of the nation and the globe. . . . The most deprived ghetto child in the most blighted project will gain educational opportunities exceeding those of today's suburban preppie." Instead, within ten years the hallucinatory hype ended in a wave of lay-offs, litigation, and consolidation of media ownership. Today the Internet looks less like utopia and more like a battlefield that reflects all the conflicts of the real world. Gibson's original dystopian vision has turned out to be truer than Gilder's imagined utopia, but this should not come as a surprise. Utopia is never more than what we are; the people in them will always be just like us.