Don’t Be Afraid to Embrace the Utopian Spirit

There’s no substitute for building worker power and winning state power to change the world. But we also shouldn’t reject the utopian spirit that has long driven many to create egalitarian living and working arrangements.

Illustration of members of the Oneida Community in upstate New York, 1896. (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

From Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984 to Lois Lowry’s The Giver, dystopian stories dominate school reading lists. When I was a kid, I assumed that this was because the adults in charge hated children and wanted to give us Major Depressive Disorder. But anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee, author of Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, Red Valkyries, and many other books, has a more compelling and plausible ideological explanation.

As Ghodsee argues in Everyday Utopia: What 2,000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us About the Good Life, these books serve as a warning to searching young minds. In The Giver, a gripping nightmare of a young adult novel (and a Newberry Award winner, which when I was a kid, we learned to recognize as a flag that the book would be a relentless bummer), love is forbidden and babies who are too small or don’t develop perfectly are euthanized, as are the old. In 1984, as in The Giver, children are taken from their mothers at birth. In Brave New World, children are raised collectively in dormitories.

All three books depict societies that have reimagined the nuclear family with horrifying results. “American youth are sometimes taught all three books in quick succession — a veritable smorgasbord of anti-utopianism,” Ghodsee observes. “The message of these books is loud and clear: you may be unhappy with the way things are but forget about trying to change them.”

These texts emerged out of Cold War anti-communism, at a time when people needed to be told over and over that there was no alternative to patriarchal capitalism. Americans were constantly reminded by the media that attempts to create alternatives could lead to Stalinist gulags, but in case that wasn’t convincing, seventh-grade syllabi were well-stocked with fictional concerns about baby-killing societies where romance is forbidden.

The Cold War is over, yet these anti-utopian novels are still widely assigned — probably because the countervailing impulse to experiment and dream is still around and could be a revolutionary force if the gatekeepers of culture were not so vigilantly engaged in crushing it.

Anyone educated in the United States has been primed by such propaganda to reject utopian thinking. But such thinking doesn’t die easily. As Ghodsee — whose work has more often focused on how state socialism helped challenge patriarchal norms — points out, people have been experimenting with alternatives to the individualist, patriarchal order for thousands of years, often successfully, and are doing so still. These experiments show that we don’t have to accept the current exploitative, abusive, and oppressive societal arrangements.

Family abolition” is a concept making a comeback on the Left in recent years, and Everyday Utopia contributes to that debate. In our present society, our inability to look beyond the nuclear family leaves us isolated, working hard all by ourselves at tasks that could be better shared by many adults, victimized by violence, and myopically concerned with our own children’s education, financial security, and thriving despite the urgent needs of millions of other children in the world.

Yet the family is also a site of care and love, not something most people want to abolish entirely. Despite the problems with a society that revolves around the family, using the same language that we use to describe struggles against slavery (or prisons, or murderous cops) does not sit well with most people. I prefer Ghodsee’s term “family expansionism” to “family abolitionism,” as it rightly captures the best leftist approach to the family. We do not want to deprive anyone of love, care, nurture, babies, or company — or of the bonds they presently enjoy. Instead, we want a society with a greatly expanded sense of the ways people can live, love, organize household chores, and raise babies; one where everyone can enjoy more care, more sociability, less labor, and more economic security.

Ghodsee’s book shows how often this has been tried — and even worked well. The Beguines were lay nuns who lived together in communities of women without taking vows, beginning in 1190 CE, enjoying economic autonomy and freedom from the strictures that governed most women’s lives. The last Beguine nun died in 2013. A Frenchman named André Godin, inspired by the feminist and socialist writings of Charles Fourier, founded a collectively run village that lasted 109 years. Today, cohousing communities and “ecovillages” are attracting new residents daily, all over the world.

Sometimes these efforts have been derided by serious socialists. Friedrich Engels derided Godin’s community as “bourgeois,” and on Marxist TikTok, similar scorn is heaped upon fellow Zoomers who have joined communes. But as Ghodsee points out, utopian communities may seem counterrevolutionary to some on the Left, but throughout history, those in power have not viewed them that way. Challenges to private property and family are fiercely resisted and often forcibly crushed, not because it really matters if a few people share lovers and laundry, but because the ruling class does not want these ideas to spread.

The Beguines were persecuted as heretics. People who joined the Oneida Community in upstate New York, where members could freely have sex with one another regardless of marriage, were charged with adultery. The Saint-Simonians, in France, were thrown in prison.

The ruling class does not want us to dream of a better life, or to realize that there are alternatives to the status quo. That’s why we are relentlessly propagandized by fictional dystopias and encouraged to mock hippie communes. It’s also why most of us know so little about the utopian communities Ghodsee describes in this book, and why this history is so badly needed.

Of course, we can’t simply change the world one cooperative windfarm at a time. We need democratic socialism, which requires functional governments and public institutions — and leftist control of those institutions. Visionary co-living experiments can’t substitute wielding the power of the state for liberatory ends. But such projects can help change the individualistic culture we live in, ushering in a more collective ethos, changing our values, and showing that it’s possible to dream of a better life than single-family suburbia. They can encourage bigger thinking about how to organize our society. By collectivizing resources at the household level, we can also help mitigate many of the diseases of capitalism and patriarchy, including overwork, loneliness, domestic violence, and ecological waste.

Such efforts also help us exercise our “capacities for hope,” Ghodsee argues, “the most powerful weapon we have.” The same can be said of this spirited and inspiring book.