Utopia, on a Smaller Scale Featured

by on Wednesday, 17 September 2014 Comments


Benoît's "Locating Utopia on the Map" has prompted my endless musings on utopias. Without going back as far as to Adam and Eve or Plato's Republic, one such utopia which left a vivid impression on me is the early Christian community of the first century Jerusalem established by Peter, as narrated in the Acts. The believers sold all their possessions, held everything in common and distributed goods based on needs. All was well, except when a man named Ananias and his wife Sapphira secretly kept a portion of the money they received from selling their land, they were both immediately punished with death at Peter's feet.


I often wonder how such a vision could be realized in present-day America. How many camels would go through the eye of a needle when the very people who claim the most literal and fundamentalist adherence to the Bible also happen to be aligned with a conservative voting block that most radically opposes any perceived "income redistribution"? One way for them to explain things away is to claim that the believers in Peter's church were only supposed to give up a portion, not all of their assets. I do not blame them for their unwillingness to give up their entire property, because I honestly admit that I would have a hard time renouncing mine, and I love my own garden much more than my neighbor's (this last point, however, might actually count as a virtue by the Ten Commandments). I am simply amazed at their sophisticated way of interpreting the Bible.

We do not know how long this early Christian community would have lasted had it not become scattered under persecution, but the relationship with surrounding communities does constitute a crucial factor for the survival of any utopia. That is why imaginary utopias tend to be set up conveniently on an island, such as Thomas More's eponymous story, which reminds me of a less famous work by a French Enlightenment writer abbé Prévost, whose voluminous novel Cleveland or the English Philosopher contains a subplot about a group of Protestants fleeing persecution who settled on an unknown island surrounded by rocks. In this perfectly idyllic society, there was no need for money and the residents shared everything based on their needs. A crisis arose, however, when the female and male birth rate became mysteriously so imbalanced that over a hundred maidens were waiting to be married. When six young men were recruited to join the colony, the elders decided that the only equitable way to determine who they should marry was to draw lots. The utopia started to disintegrate when it attempted to dictate the residents' innermost feelings in the name of equality.

Defining utopia, which connotes imagination and illusion, as social experiment, as Benoît did, may help to ground its plausibility. Utopia may become feasible if we renounce the all or nothing approach and experiment on a smaller scale. One of the reasons why Robert Owen's experiment at New Lanark enjoyed success for many years while his adventure in New Harmony, Indiana failed to take shape was because in New Lanark, he built upon an existing infrastructure and made noticeable improvements on workers' conditions, while in New Harmony, it was much more challenging to design a brand new society that would satisfy the needs and aspirations of new arrivals with vastly different backgrounds and principles.

When designing a utopia, a primary question emerges: where to recruit members for such a community? Past utopias were usually built by people who shared a similar ideal, such as religion. I also wrestle with the question of what to do with the children born from the members of such a community. While adults can accept a "social contract" on a voluntary basis, how can we ensure the children's freedom of choice, especially if the relationship between the utopia and the larger society is more or less hostile?

I can envision such a community for people 60 and older who share a strong emotional bond. In China, former high school classmates can conceivably create various types of communal living arrangements. Having spent their tender years together and bonded in some cases by a lifetime of friendship, high school classmates constitute an important support network in China. In many instances, formal or informal leaderships already emerged, facilitated by various social media, with more or less frequent activities organized such as reunions, celebrations, funerals and hardship donations. Alumni groups tend to maintain excellent relationship with the larger society which views such a bond as natural, uncontroversial and worthy of encouragement. Because members have held vastly different professions and achieved more or less material success in life, it is possible that some of them might be willing to share their respective expertise and devote a portion of their wealth to create various models of retirement community that offer mutual material and emotional support while positively impacting the social and natural environment. Given that the loneliness of the elderly is an increasingly grave problem facing modern society to the point that Pope Francis considers it one of the two greatest evils, communal living of older adults may be a type of utopia worthy of some consideration.

This is a response to an article by Benoit Vermander, which you can read here. Photo credit: New Harmony by F. Bate (View of a Community, as proposed by Robert Owen) printed 1838 Wiki Public Domain.

Jin Lu (魯進)

Born in Sichuan, China, I have studied French literature in Beijing, Boston, and Paris. I am currently a professor of French at Purdue University Calumet, USA. Joséphine Baker has two loves; I have three, or perhaps more? If you do not want to tear yourself apart, you need at least three things, and that gives you balance. I enjoy dreaming, reading and writing, among others.

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