The Utopian Socialists: Charles Fourier

The Utopian Socialists

The Shattered Dream of Charles Fourier

In his saner moments Charles Fourier (1772-1837) was more than a little ec­centric; in his wilder moments he was probably only slightly less than insane. In between, he revealed a mastery of the smallest detail and an uncanny power for predicting future developments. Like Saint-Simon and List, Fourier be­lieved that civilization passes through certain stages of development, though no one took his theory seriously. His vision of the world almost sounds like a prolonged hallucinogenic "trip": Nineteenth-century France was allegedly in the fifth stage of advancement, having passed through (1) confusion, (2) sav­agery, (3) patriarchism, and (4) barbarity. After passing through two more stages, it would eventually approach the upward slope of harmony—the final stage of utter bliss—which would last for 8,000 years. Then, however, history would reverse itself, and society would regress through each stage back to the beginning.

In apocalyptic fashion, Fourier detailed the earthly changes that would ac­company harmony: six new moons would replace the one in existence; a halo, showering gentle dew, would circle the north pole; the seas would turn to Kool-Aid; and all the violent or repulsive beasts of the earth would be replaced by their opposites: antilions, antiwhales, antibears, antibugs, and antirats would be not only commonplace but also serviceable to humankind. To top it all off, the life span of humans in the harmonic stage would stretch to 144 years, five-sixths of which would be devoted to the unrestrained pursuit of sexual love (Fourier was a crafty old bachelor as well as a childishly enthusi­astic visionary!).

It is tempting to dismiss all this as the pure frenzy of a madman, except for one thing: Fourier had a plan for reorganizing society that, despite its fantastic character, captured the imagination of others who shared his distress over the evils of capitalism. His plan, moreover, was a forerunner of the twentieth-century commune.
What Fourier proposed was a multiplicity of "garden cities" (phalanstere s) modeled after a grand hotel, where, ideally, fifteen hundred people would live in common. No restrictions would be placed on human liberty. Fourier did not believe in income redistribution of the leveling kind; he maintained that in­come inequality and poverty "are of divine ordination, and consequently must for ever remain, since everything that God has ordained is just as it ought to be" (Nouveau monde industriel, 1848, cited in Gide and Rist, p. 256).

Nor did he object to private property per se, only to its abuse, as when in­come is earned without work. Thus each resident of the hotel would be able to purchase accommodations suitable to his or her individual tastes and pocket-book. Economic production in the phalanstere, however, would be under­taken collectively. Cooperation would replace unrestrained self-interest. Indi­vidual property was not to be extinguished but transformed into fully participating common-stock shares of the phalanstere. Fourier promised high returns to wealthy capitalists who invested in his scheme, but no one ever did. Profits were to be divided exactly as follows: four-twelfths to capital, five-twelfths to labor, and three-twelfths to ability (i.e., management).

The main evil of capitalism, according to Fourier, was the conflict of indi­vidual interests. Hence the phalanstere was designed to eliminate conflicts of interest by making each member a cooperative owner as well as a wage earner. Each member would draw his or her share of income not only as a laborer but also as a capitalist (shareholder) and manager (each cooperative member had a voice in the management of the phalanstere).
Economies would be achieved in the phalanstere by communal living, which would offer the maximum of comfort at a minimum cost. Household tasks would, moreover, be undertaken collectively, thereby eliminating much individual drudgery. Dirty work would be farmed out to children, who have always taken a "preverse" delight in getting themselves filthy. In general, adults would do only work they enjoyed, and a kind of friendly competition would ensue in the form of contests to see who did his or her job best.

Perhaps it is easy to see why Fourier's plan appealed to other dreamers as well—if such a place could actually exist and, more importantly, persist, who indeed would not want to live there? Unfortunately, Fourier's ideas had much less practical influence than Owen's, although the cooperative movement owes a debt to Fourier as well. He died a tragic figure, nevertheless, having spent his last few years waiting at home during advertised hours for wealthy capitalists to come to him and finance his fantastic scheme. No one ever did.