Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Sunday, November 1, 2015


Throughout history people’s social relations have been shaped primarily by power relations. The rich take advantage of the poor and think it only right. [1] The strong and violent victimize their weaker victims. The necessary suffering arising from illness, accident, anxiety, and death has been supplemented by ceaseless exploitation, coercion, and war imposed by people upon themselves. Yet some have always dreamed of a truly just social order and have recorded those fantasies in myths of a golden age and in utopian fiction. A few have consciously sought to construct a better society than the one in which they found themselves. Fictional accounts of a happier existence are sometimes located in remote and undiscovered lands, sometimes projected backward into the beginnings of time or forward into a future yet to arrive. However chimerical the scheme, each utopia presents a critique of the author’s lived reality inspired directly by the particular time and place of its composition, though many across the centuries have also had certain elements in common. One is so universal that it must strike any student of utopias: in Asia as well as Europe, through the centuries, in both myths and semi-practical proposals alike, the residents of utopias are freed from alienated labor either through the magical elimination of work altogether or, in more realistic programs, through the institution of communism.

Once one separates the true utopias from dystopias like Brave New World and 1984 and from satires like Gulliver’s Travels and Erewhon, the fact is evident. [2] A sampling of examples will establish its range. In Hesiod (circa 700 BCE) the fabulous character of the Golden Age is evident in the fact that people had no need to toil at all. They were nonetheless able to feast due to the fact that at that time “the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint.” [3] A decline is then steadily traced in increasing inhumanity beginning in the Silver Age during which they begin “wronging one another” [4] including making war until finally even families break apart. This notion of the earth providing food without labor occurs again and again, as in Hindu accounts of the Krita (or Satya) Yuga, Vergil’s Eclogue IV, a second-hand plots of one of Athenaeus’ loquacious diners, The Faerie Queen, “The Land of Cokaygne,” or “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” [5]

Yet some texts go beyond the Pinocchio-like fantasy of a land of no work and all play. The Confucian Book of Rites describes a similar primordial ideal society and its subsequent devolution. In early times Confucius says crime and malice did not exist. Under the “Great Way” (Datong), “ the world belongs to everyone.” [[6] Here the intersection of the utopian with the practical attracted the attention of modern reformers in search of a workable plan for a peaceful society. [7]

Utopianism sometimes intruded into the world of affairs in a variety of ways. Early Christian teaching clearly counseled communal living. The central passage in Acts could not be more explicit.

And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.
And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to
house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart. (Acts 2: 44-46)

Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or
houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according
as he had need. (Acts 4: 34-5)

This practice doubtless accompanied apocalyptic expectations in the earliest days, though the church never lost its preference for communism until the nineteenth century, referring, for instance, to monastic communities which eschewed private property as an ideal of which not all were capable. The church clearly condemned usury (then defined as charging any interest whatsoever), but Aquinas plainly goes further, condemning all commerce as a sinful form of theft, citing the traders Christ expelled from the temple as well as a phalanx of church fathers in support. [7] During the nineteenth century a number of Christian communities with socialized ownership of the means of production arose, such as the Shakers, the Oneida Colony, or the Amana Colonies in Iowa. Some groups survive yet today such as the Bruderhof, the Community Doukhobars, and the Catholic Worker movement.

Doubtless the most fully delineated utopian design of Classical antiquity is Plato’s Republic. In the Republic, though the class system is fundamental, goods are nonetheless held in common to a considerable extent. There is dispute about the degree of common ownership outside the guardian class [8] but the preference is clear. Elsewhere Plato makes social ownership the prime desideratum of a just society.

“Friends have all things really in common.” As to this condition,—whether it anywhere exists now, or ever will exist,—in which there is community of wives, children, and all chattels, and all that is called “private” is everywhere and by every means rooted out of our life, and so far as possible it is contrived that even things naturally “private” have become in a way “communized,” . . .no one will ever lay down another definition that is truer or better than these conditions in point of super-excellence. In such a State,—be it gods or sons of gods that dwell in it,—they dwell pleasantly, living such a life as this. [9]

Though other utopian communist visions of antiquity have been lost – I am thinking of those of Zeno the Stoic, Iambulus, and Euhemerus — the record is clearer as one approaches modern times. More’s Utopia is, of course, wholly communist, and virtually all the utopian novels from the centuries since have eliminated private property: Johann Valentin Andreæ’s Reipublicae Christianopolitanae for instance, in which money does not exist, or Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun in which, as in Plato, lovers as well as chattels are held in common.

During the nineteenth century a great many secular experimental programs were proposed by the thinkers whom Marx contemptuously called “utopian,” notably Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen. Several hundred communes of greater or lesser duration were established along the lines of one or another of these authors including New Lanark and New Harmony (Owenite), the North American Phalanx and La Reunion (in Dallas) (Fourierist), as well as Brook Farm, the Ruskin Colony, and countless others which blossomed (and often as rapidly vanished) as people tried to build new societies in the New World.

While orthodox Marxism frowned on the utopians, it had its own version of perfectionism not only in the classless withering away of the state foreseen in communism, but at the other end of time, in Engels’ notion of primitive communism in The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State in which he portrays an Edenic origin myth, a Golden Age in the early stages of tribal, what was then called “savage,” human culture. His claim may be myth with the pretense of science, but it is clear that cooperation before the rise of classes (dramatically multiplied with the development of language) provided much of the impetus for the success of our species.

With considerable differences in detail and emphasis visionaries in the last century and a quarter have regularly prescribed communist arrangements: Morris’ News from Nowhere, the Brotherhood of Man in London’s The Iron Heel, Bellamy’s Looking Backward (where socialism is called “nationalism”), H. G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia, even B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two where stability is achieved through operant conditioning.

Clearly these flights of imagination as well as the consistent attempts to form workable intentional communities all recognize that, just as conflicts among other animals may center about females or food, among people property is the central issue that inspires ego rivalry. Accordingly, short of the loss of ego that accompanies enlightenment, one can eliminate most human fights and thus increase efficiency and cooperation and presumably human happiness by ensuring economic democracy. The church fathers were correct in considering the pursuit of wealth to be a debilitating and corrupting temptation arising from greed. In our consumer culture, people, whether inner city hustlers or respectable business executives, are programmed to be addicts, to want always more regardless of need and regardless of the welfare of fellow humans. We assume today, as all cultures have done, that our own assumptions are the true ones, and that cupidity is an inevitable human characteristic. In doing so, we ignore the higher flights of the human imagination where other possibilities are proposed, including the arrangement of human affairs so that we need no longer waste our effort and ingenuity on the ignoble task of chasing the dollar, but instead make room to pause, look about ourselves, and figure ways to enjoy more fully the lives we have and to embrace our fellow creatures. Violence and exploitation may never be wholly erased from the earth, but the direction is clear to take a step in a better direction.

1. The bulk of writings from any age will illustrate this principle. A particularly telling, and not so very ancient, example is the vast body of apologetics for slavery prior to the American Civil War, the greater number of them from a putatively Christian perspective.

2. Among the other works often labeled utopian which do not fit my scheme are Luo Maodeng’s land in the Western Ocean whose primary salient characteristic is peace though details of how this is achieved are scant, and Bacon’s New Atlantis which focuses on the research plans of Salomon’s House. Among the rare exceptions is Harrington’s Commonwealth of Oceana in which private land ownership is limited and regulated but not prohibited. Plato's Republic and the Hindu first yuga combine social ownership with rigid class systems.

3. Works and Days, 113-118.

4. Line 135.

5. Mahabharata XII (Shanti Parva), 231.12-20, Book V of The Faerie Queen; Deipnosophists VI 268 b-d in quoting The Amphictyones a lost work of Telecleides.

6. Book of Rites, Li Yun 1.

7. Confucian scholar and calligrapher Kang Youwei (1858-1927) advocated communism on the Da Tong model in his Da Tongshu.

8. Summa Theologicae 2a2ae,77. Tertullian had flatly declared that trade arose from avarice, Ambrose said that lying was concomitant with trade, and Augustine said that trade always involved fraud. To the church fathers for over a thousand years it was theft to sell merchandise for a higher price than one had paid as well as to ask more from a borrower than had been lent. See An Anatomy of Trade in Medieval Writing: Value, Consent, and Community by Lianna Farber, p. 15-16.

9. See, for instance, Aristotle, Politics 1264a, 11–22.

10. Laws 739c-740b. The first quoted line cites a Pythagorean saying quoted also in the Republic (424a) and in Euripedes' Orestes 725.

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