Utopian Analysis and Design

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note:Although the following article has not been revised for this edition of the Encyclopedia, the substantive coverage is currently appropriate. The editors have provided a list of recent works at the end of the article to facilitate research and exploration of the topic.

"From the time of its first discovery, the island of King Utopus has been shrouded in ambiguity, and no latter-day scholars should presume to dispel the fog, polluting utopia's natural environment with an excess of clarity and definition" (Manuel and Manuel 1979, p. 5).

But this ambiguity extends well beyond simple obscurity or murkiness; it reaches to unqualified contradiction. Many utopian visionaries have been denounced for their meticulous delineation of details as they constructed models of social worlds bearing no resemblance to existing, potential, or possible reality. Utopias, it would seem, suffer from the twin infirmities of ambiguity and excessive efforts to achieve clarity and definition. Our dictionaries tell us they are, on the one hand, ideally perfect places but, on the other hand, are simply impractical thought or theory. Utopians are customarily viewed as zealous but quixotic reformers. The books in which they describe their societies may be praised as fascinating, fanciful literature but not as scientific tomes.

It is quite possible as well as reasonable to view utopians as model builders. Models are quite different objects from what is being modeled and have properties not shared by their counterparts. "The aim of a model is precisely not to reproduce reality in all its complexity. It is, rather, to capture in a vivid, often formal way what is essential to understanding some aspect of its structure or behavior" (Weizenbaum 1976, pp. 149–150).

One occupational disability of model builders everywhere is a sort of pathological obsession with a single element, or at most a strictly circumscribed set of elements, of reality, along with an unwavering refusal to examine the larger milieu in which they are found.

In Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1965), a central value or societal goal is the concept of economic equality; but this does not include the notion of social equality. There exists in Utopia a large underclass of slaves who are assigned the more distasteful but necessary tasks of the society. This class is composed of war prisoners (More's society is not free of war), persons born into slavery (it is not free of slavery), condemned criminals from other countries who are purchased from foreign slave markets (crime has not been eliminated), and working-class foreigners (class distinctions persist) who volunteer for slavery in Utopia rather than suffer the unpleasant conditions in their home countries (ethnic and immigration difficulties continue to exist). All able-bodied persons in Utopia become part of its work force—slaves, male nonslaves, and even women! This is seen as an enormous augmentation of the work force. Within each household, however, male dominance prevails. Households are under the authority of the oldest free male. Women are specifically designated as "sub-ordinate" to their husbands, as children are to their parents and younger people generally are to their elders. In Utopia, the applicability of equality is severely restricted.

In discussing utopias it is important to distinguish between analytic and design models. Analytic models purport to be summaries of existing empirical reality; design models are summaries or sketches of future, past, or alternative societies, social structures, or worlds.

Characteristically, utopian literature contains a critique of existing society along with a model of a different one. Frequently the design model incorporates a more or less indirect critique of an existing state of affairs. Plato's Republic (1941), the work that seems to have been the prototype of More's Utopia, was greatly influenced by the social conditions observed and experienced by Plato. He saw the Athens in which he lived as a very corrupt democracy and felt that in such a system politicians inevitably pandered to mobs. If the mob insisted upon venal demands, politicians found it necessary to agree with them or lose their own positions. Reform, he felt, was not possible in a corrupt society. In the Republic Socrates, voicing Plato's sentiments, concludes that "the multitude can never be philosophical. Accordingly, it is bound to disapprove of all who pursue wisdom; and so also, of course, are those individuals who associate with the mob and set their hearts on pleasing it" (1941, p. 201).

Interestingly, it has been suggested that Plato's hostility to democracy was, at least to some extent, shaped by his economic and social background. Members of his family were large landholders who, along with others in a similar position, saw the rise of commerce as a threat to their economic positions. Democratic government undermined their political preeminence, as did militant foreign policies. They had a great deal to lose through war because they were subject to heavy war taxes. Moreover, some had had their lands ravaged by Spartans during the Peloponnesian War; others had retreated behind the walls of Athens. These conservative elements were not above attempting to subvert the democratic system (Klosko 1986, p. 10).

In any event, Plato's utopia is clearly elitist in nature. For a variety of reasons most utopian schemes seem to be controlled by elites of some sort. As one writer explains it:

They begin with the proposition that things are bad; things must become better, perhaps perfect here on earth; things will not improve by themselves; a plan must be developed and carried out; this implies the existence of an enlightened individual, or a few, who will think and act in a way that many by themselves cannot think and act. (Brinton 1965, p. 50)

For Plato, the elites were what he called philosophers. In a sense these were the theoreticians or model makers. The problem he saw was converting their models—their ideal worlds—into reality. Plato was very realistic about this matter of convertibility. He has Socrates ask, "Is it not in the nature of things that action should come less close to truth than thought?" (1941, p. 178). He is, however, concerned about trying to come as close as possible to having the real world correspond to the ideal one. The solution? To have philosophers become rulers or to have rulers become philosophers. In either case enormous, if not complete, power is to be held by a caste of elites.

In effect, social inequality is found even in the work of the triumvirate usually referred to as the "utopian socialists": Claude Henri de Rouvroy de Saint Simon (1760–1825), Charles Fourier (1772– 1837), and Robert Owen (1771–1858).

In his early work Saint Simon's elites were scientists, but later he tended to subordinate them or at least to keep them on a par with industrial chiefs. He evaded the problem of social equality by saying that each member of society would be paid in accordance with his or her "investment." This referred to the contribution each made to the productive process. Since different people had different talents, these contributions would differ. Some people's contributions would be more important than others', and accordingly those people would be paid more. But although the rewards of different people would differ, there would not be wide discrepancies between the rewards of the lowest- and highest-paid workers (Manuel and Manuel 1979, pp. 590–614).

Unlike Saint Simon, who never wrote a detailed description of a utopian society, Charles Fourier wrote thousands of pages of detailed descriptions of his "Phalanx," including architectural specifications, work schedules and countless other details. The Phalanx was to be organized essentially as a shareholding corporation. Members were free to buy as many shares as they wished or could afford. Fourier stressed the fact that in his utopia there would be three social classes: the rich, the poor, and the middle. The condition of the poor would be enormously better than their condition in existing society, but the rich or upper class would be entitled to more lavish living quarters, more sumptuous food, and, in general, a more luxurious life-style than the others. During the last fifteen years or so of his life, most of Fourier's efforts were devoted to the search for a wealthy person to subsidize a trial of his Phalanx (Beecher 1986).

Robert Owen insisted on what he regarded to be complete equality. Conceding that people were born with differing abilities, he contended that these abilities were provided by God and should not be the basis for differential rewards. Nevertheless, as a self-made man who became extremely successful and managed the most important cotton-spinning factory in Britain, he never seemed to lose the self-assurance that he knew best how to manage a community and that all members would understand the wisdom of his decisions. He has been characterized as a benevolent autocrat who acted somewhat like a military commander who has little direct contact with his troops (Cole 1969; Manuel and Manuel 1979, pp. 676–693).

In the United States, the most widely read utopian novel based on the assumption of absolute economic equality is undoubtedly Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1887). Bellamy (1850– 1898), influenced by the development of the large economic trusts in the United States, postulated that by the year 2000 only one enormous trust would remain: the United States government. He went to great pains to make it clear that his utopia was devoid of Marxist or other European influences. The principle of income or reward on which it was based was neither "From each according to his investment or product" nor the classic "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," although it was much closer to the latter than to the former.

In Bellamy's vision of the United States in the year 2000, each person received an equal share of the total national product. In effect, every inhabitant received a credit card showing his or her share of the product. The share could be spent in any manner. If too many individuals decided to buy a particular product, the price of that product would be raised. The point, however, is that people were entitled to a share of the national product not on the basis of their individual productivity but simply because they existed as human beings. In some telling passages Bellamy's characters observe that members of families do not deny food or other needs to other family members because they have been unproductive. In effect, the entire country (and, presumably, ultimately the entire world) would resemble our more primitive notion of one family.

Bellamy's work received widespread attention throughout the world. In England, William Morris (1834–1896) objected strenuously to the centralized control and bureaucratic form of organization in Looking Backward. Morris wrote his own utopian novel, News from Nowhere (1866). Unlike Bellamy's utopia, which came into being through a process of evolution, a violent revolution has occurred in Nowhere. London has become a series of relatively small villages separated by flowers and wooded areas. There is no centralized government—no government at all—as we normally understand it. With the end of private property and domestic arrangements in which women are essentially the property of men, the underlying reasons for criminal behavior have been eliminated. Random acts of violence are regarded as transitory diseases and are dealt with by nurses and doctors rather than by jailers.

It has been argued that Morris was essentially an anarchist theorist, although Morris himself vigorously objected to such characterization of his work. It has been suggested that anarchism has two major forms: collectivist and individualist. Morris is seen as essentially a collectivist anarchist, although not an anarchosyndicalist—the form that stresses trade-union activity. He ridiculed conventional forms of individualism. Anarchism itself is defined as a social theory that advocates a community-centered life with great amounts of personal liberty. It opposes coercion of its population (Sargent 1990, pp. 61–64).

Other commentators see News from Nowhere as an effort by Morris to present his arguments against anarchism (Holzman 1990, p. 99). It seems clear that his work does not fit neatly into any prefabricated ideological cubbyhole. Morris cherished aesthetic over intellectual values (he was an architect, artist, poet, designer, and craftsman). When one of his characters in News from Nowhere is asked how labor is rewarded, the reply is quite predictable: it is not rewarded. Work has become a pleasure—not a hardship. Each person does what he or she can do best; the quandary of extrinsic motivation has substantially disappeared.

Motivation, however, is the central concern in B. F. Skinner's Walden Two (1948). Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904–1990) was a professional psychologist whose utopia was a product of his interest in behavioral engineering. His ideal community has been described as one of means rather than of ends—one in which technique has been elevated to utopian status (Kumar 1987, p. 349).

This is not completely accurate. It does capture the essence of how Skinner himself saw his utopia, but it omits direct consideration of the implicit values held by its designer.

Skinner himself was unquestionably a well-motivated, humanistic scientist, but he neglected his customary penetrating analysis when approaching the area of values held by the boss scientist. At one point in Walden Two, however, he does seem to have some insight into this difficulty. Frazier, the founder of the community, voices the unspoken criticism of one of the other characters by pointing to his own insensitivity to the effect he has on others, except when the effect is calculated; his lack of the personal warmth responsible in part for the success of the community; the ulterior and devious nature of his own motives. He then cries out, "But God damn it Burris . . . can't you see? I'm—not—a—product—of—Walden—Two!" (Skinner 1948, p. 233).

Economic and basic social equality exist in this community, but effective control is exercised through the built-in reinforcement techniques of its designer. When Frazier is challenged on this by one of the characters who observes that Frazier, looking at the world from the middle of the twentieth century, assumes he knows the best course for humanity forever, Frazier essentially agrees. His defense is that the techniques of behavioral engineering currently exist (and presumably will continue to be used), but they are in the wrong hands—those of charlatans, salespeople, ward heelers, bullies, cheats, educators, priests, and others. Ultimately, Skinner's designer insists, human beings are never free—their behavior is determined by prior conditioning in the society in which they were raised. The belief in their own freedom is what allows human beings unwittingly to become conditioned by reinforcers in their existing environments.

Thus, in effect, Walden Two achieves its effects by changing the psychological characteristics of its inhabitants through environmental modification. Its final form is presumably an experimental question. The queries are simple enough and are stated explicitly at one point: What is the best behavior for the individual as far as the group is concerned? How can an individual be induced to behave in that way? The answer presumably can change over time, on the basis of experimental experience. The entire edifice would seem to depend upon the continuing moral superiority of the reinforcement designers over the charlatans they replace.

Quite a different sort of utopia has been proposed by the philosopher Robert Nozick, who outlines what he calls the framework for a utopia. In a word (or two), this framework is equivalent to what Nozick calls the minimal state (Nozick 1974, pp. 297–334). This is a state "limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on . . . any more extensive state will violate persons' rights not to be forced to do certain things and is unjustified . . ." (Nozick 1974, p. ix).

Nozick is not concerned with modifying behavior or specifying social structures beyond this minimum state. He begins with the assumption that individual persons have certain rights that may never be violated by any other person or the state. These include the right not to be killed or attacked if you are not doing any harm; not to be coerced or imprisoned; not to be limited in the use of your property if that use does not violate the rights of others.

In arguing for a minimal state, Nozick, on the one hand, is arguing against anarchism (in which there is no state at all). On the other hand, he argues against all forms of the welfare state (in which some people with excessive wealth may be required to surrender some of their property to help others who are less fortunate) (Paul 1981).

As Nozick sees it, rights define a moral boundary around individual persons. The sanctity of this boundary takes priority over all other possible goals. Thus, it becomes readily understandable why he feels that nonvoluntary redistribution of income is morally indefensible:

It is an extraordinary but apparent consequence of this view that for a government to tax each of its able-bodied citizens five dollars a year to support cripples and orphans would violate the rights of the able-bodied and would be morally impermissible, whereas to refrain from taxation even if it meant allowing the cripples and orphans to starve to death would be the morally required governmental policy. (Scheffler 1981, p. 151)

Here again we see the clash of values that lie at the heart of utopian schemes and their critics. A serious and widely discussed effort to resolve these clashes was made late in the twentieth century by another social philosopher, John Rawls. A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971) was not a utopian novel but a meticulously argued tome that has been compared with John Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government and John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. The central question confronting his work has been expressed thus: "Is it possible to satisfy the legitimate 'leftist', 'socialist' critics of Western capitalism within a broadly liberal, capitalist and democratic framework?" (Goldman 1980, p. 431).

Unfortunately, Rawls has found himself increasingly caught between attacks from both the left and the right. The left feels he has not gone far enough in constraining property rights; the right feels he places too great an emphasis upon the value of equality, especially at the expense of the right to property (Goldman 1980, pp. 431–432).

A central point argued by Rawls is that there is no injustice if greater benefits are earned by a few, provided the situation of people not so fortunate is thereby improved (Rawls 1971, pp. 14–15).

As one commentator expressed it, for Rawls equality comes first. Goods are to be distributed equally unless it can be shown that an unequal distribution is to the advantage of the least advantaged. This would be a "just" distribution (Schaar 1980). One might add, parenthetically, that this justice would depend substantially upon the nature of the existing social and economic arrangements under which this inequality occurs. Would a different set of arrangements allow greater equality? For example, is capital available only through private sources? Would public sources serve similar ends with less inequality?

The central issue for utopian analysts from Plato through twentieth-century philosophers is how one constructs a "just" society. But there is no single definition of "just"; it all depends on what you consider to be important. Are you concerned exclusively with yourself? your immediate family? others in your community? in your country? in the world?

And so it is that utopian analysis and design ultimately begin with an implicit, if not explicit, value orientation. One school of thought begins with an overwhelming belief that elites of one sort or another must be favored in the new society. Elite status may be gained through existing wealth, birth, talent, skill, intelligence, or physical strength. Another school begins with what is, broadly speaking, the concept of equality. Here the implicit notion is not unlike Western ideas of the family: to each equally, irrespective of either productivity or need. Between these two polar positions lie a range of intermediate proposals that may provide greater amounts of compensation based upon some definition of need or elite status. In turn, compensation may or may not be linked directly to political or other forms of power.

Issues relating to the nation-state (its form, its powers, and even its very existence), ethnicity, and inequality became acute in the final decade of the twentieth century. Ethnic groups throughout the world grew militant in their demands for their own national entities. Many saw this as a path to a solution for their own problems of inequality. With the apparent easing, if not the elimination, of Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, widespread controversies began relative to the shape of a "new world order." This posed unprecedented challenges to utopian thought. To deal with these challenges, social scientists, as well as imaginative novelists and others, were confronted with the task of integrating value configurations, social structures, and psychological sets on levels that may well make all previous efforts at utopian analysis and design resemble the stumbling steps of a child just learning to walk.

(see also: Equity Theory; Social Philosophy)


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Robert Boguslaw