The Story of Utopias, by Lewis Mumford, , at sacred-texts.com
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How some utopians have thought that a good community rested at bottom on the right division and use of land; and what sort of communities these land-animals projected.
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BEFORE the Industrial Revolution upset the balance of social power, there were little villages in England where, on a limited scale and to no very grand purpose, a quiet and placid and fairly jolly existence must have been the rule of things. These villages were those in which the land was either held in freehold by small proprietors, or where there still remained for the use of each inhabitant certain common pastures and wastes. Under this regime there was a fair degree of prosperity with which only the wind and the weather and war could interfere. Something of the savor of this life Mr. W. H. Hudson finely conveys in his A Traveller in Little Things; and a century ago Cobbett made a series of excellent snapshots in his Rural Rides.
When the mediæval order broke down the great proprietors began to seize this common land; and during the eighteenth century, under the incentive of big-scale scientific agriculture, the seizure went on at a merry pace. The peasant without land was forced to migrate to the new towns, as the Hammonds have pictured in their graphic work on the Town Laborer; and the labor of the peasant and his family fed the machines which the Watts and Arkwrights were developing in the eighteenth century. Industrial progress and social poverty went hand in hand. The period before the
[paragraph continues] Industrial Revolution seemed in comparison a real utopia; and the key to this utopia was the land.
The importance of land in the constitution of civil society was emphasized by the Diggers of Cromwell's time; one of them, Gerard Winstanley, wrote a minor utopia to prove that the land should be held in common; and this view was reinforcedwithout the communismin a purely political utopia called Oceana by Sir James Harrington, who lived during the same period. Harrington advocated such a distribution of land that the landed gentry should be the leaders, and the commonalty should have the preponderance of power.
Out of all the modern utopias with which we have to reckon there are two, in particular, in which the common possession of land is the foundation of every other institution. These are Spensonia and A Visit to Freeland.
The early part of the nineteenth century is remarkable for the fact that men of common stock, usually self-educated, began to apply their wits to improving the conditions of the class to which they belonged; and in particular there was in London a peasant named William Cobbett, a tailor named Francis Place, and a stationer named Thomas Spence who devoted a good part of what remained over from their working days to plans for bettering man's estate.
Thomas Spence had a shop in High Holborn from which he published little pamphlets of rough philosophy, called Pig's Meat; in 1795 he issued A Description of Spensonia, which was followed in 1801 by The
[paragraph continues] Constitution of Spensonia: A Country in Fairyland situated between Utopia and Oceana; brought from thence by Captain Swallow. Spence's title to have written a complete utopia rests upon the fact that he proposes a return to an environment which had once been, in its fashion, complete.
Spensonia begins with a parable about a father who had a number of sons, who built them a ship for traffic, and who provided that the profits of the enterprise were to be shared in common. This ship is wrecked upon an island; and the sons quickly awake to the conclusion that if "they did not apply the Marine Constitution given them by their father to their landed property, they would soon experience inexpressible inconveniences. They therefore declared the property of the island to be the property of them all collectively, in the same manner as the ship had been, and that they ought to share the profits thereof in the same way. The island they named Spensonia, after the ship which their father had given them. They next chose officers to mark out such portions of the land, as every person or family desired to occupy, for which they were to receive for the use of the public a certain rent according to its value. This rent was applied to public uses or divided among themselves as they thought proper. But in order to keep up the remembrance of their rights, they decreed that they should never fail to share at rent-time, an equal dividend, though ever so small, and though the public demands should be ever so urgent. . . . As they had determined, when seeing that every ship they should build and man, should . . . be the property of the crew, so, in conformity therewith, they decreed that every district or parish which
they should people, should be the property of the inhabitants, and the rent and police of the same at their disposal. . . . A National Assembly or Congress consisting of delegates from all the parishes takes care of the national concerns, and defrays the expenses of the state and matters of common utility, by a pound rate from each parish without any other tax."
What is a parish and what is its work? Look around the English countryside and see.
A parish, to begin with, is a "compact portion of the country, designedly not too large that it may the more easily be managed by the inhabitants with respect to its revenues and the police."
"The parishes build and repair houses, make roads, plant hedges and trees, and in a word do all the business of a landlord. . . . A parish has many heads to contrive what ought to be done. Instead of debating about mending the state, . . . (for ours needs no mending) we employ our ingenuity nearer home, and the result of the debates are in every parish, how we shall work such a mine, make such a river navigable, drain such a fen, or improve such a waste. These things we are all immediately interested in, and have each a vote in executing."
There is a rough, homespun quality about this utopia, and it needs a visit to the English villages of the New Forest or the Chiltern Hills, where some of the common lands have been kept, to see what a rural utopia would be like if it could keep itself free from invaders who sought to live off the fat of the land without contributing their labor. Spence was not altogether blind to the necessity of keeping watch over this constitution of equality; and he places his utopia in the care of two
guardian angelsVoting by Ballot and the Universal Use of Armstwo angels which look less formidable and potent in the twentieth century than they did in the first decade of the nineteenth, when the first had still to be tried, and when the second was not complicated by the invention of machine guns and poison gases.
At the bottom of Spence's Utopia, however, lies the conviction which he shares with Plato and all the other genuine utopians; namely, that in Thoreau's words less is accomplished by the thousands who are hacking at the branches of evil than by one who is striking at the root. Spence, it must be remembered, wrote in the thick of the agitation for parliamentary reform which was the keynote of so much nineteenth century activitythe chartist movement, parliamentary socialism, and the like, being so many rainbows in the bubble of political effort which burst with such a bang when the Great War broke out. Spence saw the futility of these superficial demands. He said:
"Thousands of abortive schemes are daily proposed for redressing grievances and mending the constitution, whereas, the shoes were so ill-made at first, and so worn, rotten, and patched already, that they are not worth the trouble or expense, but ought to be thrown to the dunghill; and a new pair should be made, neat, tight, and easy as for the foot of one that loves freedom and ease. Then would your controversies about this and the other way of cobbling, that continually agitate you, be done away; and you would walk along the rugged and dirty path of life easy and dry-shod."
The next utopia, Freeland, marks a transition between the utopia in which the land alone is held by the community and that in which land and capital and all the machinery of production belongs to a national state.
The writer of this utopia was an Austrian economist, Theodor Hertzka; and he first published his view in considerable detail, with reference to current economic doctrines, in a book called Freeland: A Social Anticipation. He condensed these doctrines in another book called A Visit to Freeland, or the new Paradise Regained, an attempt to picture his freeman's commonwealth in action.
These books formed the center of a whirlwind of agitation; a magazine sprang up; societies were organized in various cities in Europe and America; and a definite attempt was made to colonize a certain section of Africa, selected by Hertzka; an attempt which, alas! met with speedy failure as a result of the obtuseness and international jealousy of various colonial officials. The first book was published in 1889; and all this happened in the early nineties. Perhaps the only practical effect of it wasand this is mere conjectureto turn the thoughts of certain Zionists, like Israel Zangwill, from establishing Zion in Jerusalem to building it up again in some more suitable region in the heart of Africa.
Freeland may be described as an individualist Utopia on a social foundation. Hertzka was filled with sympathy and admiration for the doctrines that Adam Smith set forth in The Wealth of Nations; and he desired
to realize a society in which the maximum amount of individual freedom and initiative would prevail, especially in industrial enterprises. This leads to a paradox; namely, that in order to ensure freedom it is impossible to practise laissez faire; for the effect of laissez faire is to permit accidental aggregations of wealth and power to threaten the freedom that less fortunate individuals seek to enjoy. So far from being an anarchist utopia, Freeland is a co-operative commonwealth in which the State acts as an interested party in the production and distribution of goods. This differs from socialism in name; and it differed from the practical socialist agitation of the time in that it relied, not upon turning over established institutions in Europe, but in turning over a new leaf in the Kenia Highlands of Africa; but Hertzka's "individualism" comes to almost the same thing.
A visit to Freeland teaches us little about the arts of social life or the constitution of a good society. What we can learn is one of the methods by whichon hypothesis anywaythe industrial mechanism might be controlled.
In Freeland there are five fundamental laws; and of these the first is the most important; namely, that:
Every inhabitant has an equal right to the common land and to the means of production which are furnished by the state.
The other fundamental laws have to do with the support of women and children, old men, and those otherwise unfit to work, all of whom have the right of maintenance,
corresponding to the amount of credit belonging to the state; with the provision of universal suffrage for all above twenty-five years of age; and with the establishment of independent legislative and executive branches of the government.
Let us follow the visitor to Freeland as he makes his first explorations in Edendale, its principal city, and learns how affairs are conducted. If this is an individualist utopia it is not by any means free from the services of a bureaucracy; for first of all the visitor turns to the Central Statistical Office, where records are kept of the occupations that are open and the amount of pay offered by each. "Every inhabitant of Freeland," our visitor finds, "has the right to become a member of any business he pleases. One has only to present oneself for this purpose; for the managers only decide upon the manner in which the members are to be employed, and not on the membership itself." In practice, the number of individuals with private businesses and partnerships seems to be limited, for big companies not merely operate factories but provide restaurant service, build houses, and even supply domestic service to private individuals and households.
(The visitor has his boots blacked by one of these associated menials, and his hostess explains how the services of a caterer and a valet may be obtained by calling up a central distributing agency.)
The sole condition upon which a person or company is allowed to engage in business is that the public be kept informed of all business transactions. "The companies are therefore obliged to conduct their bookkeeping openly. The prices at which goods are bought and sold, the net profits and the number of workmen,
must be communicated at intervals which are fixed according to the judgment of the central office."
Observe that Hertzka reckons with the fact that in an industrial society, access to machinery is just as important as access to the land, since, in a manner of speaking, all our modern activities, even agriculture, are parasitic upon machinery. Hence the collection and distribution of capital is managed in the interests of the whole community; the first being taken care of by a yearly tax, which obviates the needand perhaps the possibilityof individual savings, whilst the capital is distributed without interest to the companies that make application for it. The community pays for the plant through the added charge which is laid on consumers; the credit advanced is cancelled out through production. This arrangement does away with the standing charge for capital which is maintained under present day production for profit even after the original capital has been paid off in dividends; and above all, it does away with the practice of capitalizing increased returns in such a way as to enlarge the amount of the standing charge for capital. The social use of capital to advance production, rather than to provide fixed incomes for a rentier class, is recognized in Freeland.
Since our visitor is an engineer, he turns to a plant devoted to the manufacture of railway equipment; and notes that it is run under the following statutes.
1. Everyone is free to join the first Edendale Engine and Railway Manufacturing Co., even if he also belongs to other companies. Everyone is also permitted to leave the company whenever he chooses. The board of management decides in what branch of the works the members shall be employed.
2. Every member is entitled to an amount of the net proceeds of the company corresponding to the quantity of work which is done.
3. The amount of work is calculated according to the number of hours, to which two per cent. is added to that of the older members, and ten per cent. to foremen, and ten per cent. for night work.
4. The engineers are paid as if working from ten to fifteen hours, according to ability. The value of the manager is estimated in the general assembly.
5. Out of the company's profits a deduction is first made towards repayment of capital, and after this the tax to the state is deducted. The remainder is divided among members.
6. If the company is dissolved or liquidated, the members are responsible in proportion to the amount of profit which they get from revenues of the company, and this responsibility for the amount which is still pledged is proportionately laid upon new members. When a member leaves the company, his responsibility for debt which has already been contracted is not extinguished. In case of dissolution, liquidation, or sale, this responsibility corresponds to the claim of the responsible member to the means of the company which are in hand, or to his share in what is sold.
7. The principal judicial body of the company is the general assembly in which every member has the same right to speak and exercise the same active and passive right of choice. The general assembly makes its determination by simply counting the majority of votes. A majority of three quarters is necessary for changing the statutes and for a dissolution or liquidation of the company.
8. The general assembly practises its right either directly or by means of chosen officials, who are answerable to it for their actions.
9. The business of the society is managed by a directorate of three members who hold office at the will of the general assembly. The subordinate functionaries are chosen by the managers.
10. The general assembly selects every year a committee of inspection which consists of five members. This body has to control and make a report upon the books and the manner in which the company is conducted.
Now, as a member of the company, our visitor would have the amount he has earned credited to him at a Central Bank, which keeps his accounts and sends him an abstract every week; and through this bank he would make the larger part of his disbursements. The products of the company, moreover, are valued, stored, and sold by a Central Warehouse, in much the same fashion that under the present regime a manufacturer's whole output may be disposed of through a big department store or a mail order house.
Let us now sum this up. The collection and disposition of capital belongs to the community; and the total capital available for further production each year is based directly upon the productive capacities of the community, without the waste and leakage that arises in present-day society though what Mr. Thorstein Veblen calls the conspicuous wastethe futile expendituresof the leisured classes. That this collection of a capital tax upon income would be any more difficult than the present corporation tax or private income tax, which is now dissipated to the extent of some 90 per
cent. or so upon armies and navies, is seriously to be doubted. In addition to this, the process of open bookkeeping enables the Central Bank and the Central Warehouse to have an accurate knowledge of potential production, and thus there exists an accurate basis for apportioning credit. At the same time the value of commodities comes by this means to have a direct relation to the costs of production rather than to what the traffic will bear.
On all these heads the trained economist will doubtless have many points to contest; but in their broad outlines there is no abrupt departure from current practise in any of these items, and not much reason, perhaps, why they should not be more thoroughly instituted.
With the various ramifications of Edendale industry and corporate finance it is not my business to deal; we have gone far enough to see that very little indeed remains when the question of means has been gone into.
The chief good that Freeland seems to offer is freedom in industrial enterprise. An association of men can get land and capital on demand, and devote themselves to either agriculture or manufacturing industry; and the risk of failure is minimized by a complete knowledge of the probable demand and probable supply calculated by the statistical bureau. Failing an outlet for industry through association, there remains the land itself, for individual cultivation. "Every family in Freeland dwells in its own house, and every house is surrounded by its great garden, a thousand square meters in extent. These houses are the private property of the inhabitants, and serve, like the gardens, for private use. The inhabitants of Freeland do not,
as a rule, recognize any kind of ownership of land; they rather go upon the principle that the land must be put in everyone's hands to do with what he chooses. This, in the most literal and wide sense of the word, means that every inhabitant of Freeland can cultivate every piece of land whenever he pleases. But this only relates to the land which is set apart for cultivation, and not that set apart for living upon. . . . The inhabitants of Freeland have agreed, with regard to the size and disposition of the land, serving for the creation of a dwelling house, to form regulations, and a kind of building court . . . which has to determine what ground is and what is not to be built upon, parcels out the land for building, sees to the laying out of streets, canals, and the like, and especially takes care that not more than one building is erected upon one building allotment."
What sort of life arises out of this kind of industrial association, these provisions for the common use of machinery and land? It is all rather dry and colorless, a sort of picture postcard view of the Promised Land.
We are told that there are a great number of public buildings in Edendalean administrative palace, the Central bank, the University, the Academy of Arts, three Public Libraries, four Theaters, the grand central goods warehouse, a great number of schools and other buildings. In addition, extraordinary means are taken to provide for public cleanliness, and the aqueducts in Edendalewe seem to be reading a Chamber of Commerce report!are "almost without any equal in the
world," moreover, "they are being extended daily." The refuse is cleaned away by a system of pneumatic sucking apparatus. The streets are entirely macadamized. Electric tramways cross them in every direction and bind the suburbs to the town. Such glimpses as we get of Edendale remind us, in fact, of a go-ahead city in California or South Africa. The utopia of Freeland is progressive enough in all conscience; for many of these mechanical devices were only vague anticipations in 1889; but it is progressive in a mechanical sense; and when we examine it carefully, people seem to live the same sort of life here as they do in a "modern" European or American city.
There are differences, of course; and I do not seek to minimize their importance: the slum proletariat has been abolished; everyone belongs to the middle class and enjoys the felicities of a high-grade clerk or an engineer or minor official. This is the peculiarity of our nineteenth century utopians: they do not so much criticize the goods of their times as demand more of them! Buckingham and Hertzka, though they differ in details, wish to extend middle class values throughout societycomfort and security and a plenitude of soap and sanitation. Even when the means they propose are revolutionary, the institutions they would erect are conceived very much in the image of current use and wont, and are unspeakably tame.
As we pass from Hertzka to Bellamy these facts glare insistently at us. The slight air of tedium that I have not been able to disguise in dealing with these utopias arises, I believe, from our excessive familiarity with their contents. Our nineteenth century utopias, if we except those of Fourier and Spence and a few more
distinguished ones which we shall presently come to, do not dream of a renovated world: they keep on adding inventions to the present one. These utopias become vast reticulations of steel and redtape, until we feel that we are caught in the Nightmare of the Age of Machinery; and shall never escape. If this characterization seem unjust, I beg the reader to compare the utopias before Bacon with the utopias after Fourier, and find out how little human significance remains in the post-eighteenth century utopia when the machinery for supporting the good life is blotted out. These utopias are all machinery: the means has become the end, and the genuine problem of ends has been forgotten.