Sunday, 20 February 2011

American Fourierism

American Fourierism

Before discussing the transmission of Fourierism to America and the relative success it had there, it is necessary to examine the reasons behind the system’s failure in Britain. Primarily, I would argue that the popularity of Owenism as the chief socialist theory at this time meant that any ideology that was set up in opposition to it, as Fourierism was, would attract very little attention. Furthermore, the secular element of Fourierism would have been rejected in a society where the need for moral and social reform was discussed “in the same breath as the need for religious reform”;[i];. Additionally, Jenkins is particularly useful in exploring this question. He provides us with the example of the Irish reformer, Hugh Doherty, as the main exponent of British Fourierism. Doherty sought to use “emigration along Fourierist principles… to alter working conditions and social organisation”;[ii];. This was rooted in the idea that colonial territories presented the perfect opportunity to alleviate the problems of overcrowding and other social ills. The existence of other, less drastic, means of social reform meant that Doherty’s version of Fourierism failed. Related to this is the fact that Britain and Europe were too deep-rooted in principles that were contradictory to Fourierist thinking for its proposals to be practical. America on the other hand was relatively young and had not yet pledged itself to industrial capitalism, making it a better candidate for sweeping social change. As the Associationists would later proclaim, “[we must] take advantage of our favourable position, and effect peacefully a social reform before we sink in to the poverty and ignorance in which Europe is plunged”[iii];
The initial Americanisation of Fourier’s ideas can be attributed to Albert Brisbane, who in 1840 presented the philosopher’s ideology to the general American public. What he and other social reformers were principally concerned with was Fourier’s plans for social reorganization, exemplified by his blueprints for Phalanxes, as well as to make as much of the theory congruent with contemporary American ideology as possible. Some parts of Fourier’s writing already did this, the capitalist element of the system rang true with America’s laissez-faire economic policy and his desire for an agricultural setting appealed to those who believed that the Industrial Revolution would lead America down a dark path of oppression that Europe had already stumbled down. However, the “universal, secular and socialist” nature of Fourier’s philosophy presented “serious difficulties” for the widespread propagation of the theory;[iv];. Moreover, the pseudo-prophetic pronouncements to be found in Fourier’s writings, especially on the future of sexual relations, the role of government and the marginalisation of economy and commerce scared much of the American public, let alone its leaders.
The theory obviously required a certain degree of editing before it was introduced, otherwise the experiment would fail to gather momentum as it did in Britain. In doing this Brisbane had much assistance from his French predecessors, whose imprint on Brisbane’s final re-formulation of the doctrine, “Association”, can be evidenced by the prevalence of French quotations;[v];. In this publication the sexual radicalism of Fourier’s original text was heavily toned down to accommodate the sexual conservatism of the American public and as a response to criticism from “press and pulpit”;[vi];. Similarly, ‘Association’ manipulated Fourier’s text to compliment the main principles of contemporary Protestantism; these being what Gabriel identifies as the divinity of human nature, personal responsibility for sin, millennialism and a belief in a divine moral order corroborated by science;[vii]. By creating the blueprint for a utopia based on the traits of human character, the Associationists believed Fourier to be implicitly embracing the first of these Protestant principles. Equally, they used his suggestion that the divine social code for human organisation was imprinted on nature, and only needed to be interpreted, as a means of aligning the theory with millennial beliefs, “Christ’s second coming would be in the form of a completely redeemed society”;[viii];. So far, it appears that Fourierism was translated to America quite successfully, albeit only after selective editing and manipulation of the theory. Compounding this is the fact that even after the unadulterated version of the original text was released to the general public there was no significant breakaway from the movement. This could suggest that the work of Brisbane and his colleagues in editing Fourier’s writings need not to have been so extensive- that it would have translated to an American setting unaided. This is obviously only speculation.
However, there were some elements of Fourierism that were irreconcilable with American values. For instance, his advocacy of Determinist thinking, which posited that it is our environment and upbringing that determine our actions, removed any notion of moral culpability for our actions. This was clearly incongruent with Christian ideas about sin. Equally, Fourier’s distaste for nationalism (an opinion bequeathed him by his experiences in the French Revolution) did not correlate with American isolationism and “uniqueness”. Indeed, Fourier stressed universalism and international co-operation; this would have put American pride in a difficult position and make the theory unpopular with some. However, despite these irreconcilable aspects, the sheer volume of Fourierist communities that emerged in America during the 1840s, the most notable being Brook Farms, suggests that this Utopian scheme was largely successfully translated to an American audience- despite the ultimate failure of the practical experiments. Furthermore, Oneida, a religious community that was heavily influenced by their “noble ancestor” Fourier;[ix];, enjoyed a lifespan of nearly forty years. This shows that Fourierism had a significant effect on popular discussions of social reform, indicating that the scheme was effectively translated to America as a starting point for widening the discourse on such a matter.
The example of American Fourierism and Utopian schemes in general can be used to suggest that they can never be practically applicable. On the fundamental level this is evidenced by the fact that in both Britain and America it was necessary to reformulate the scheme to make it appealing to the public, something that wouldn’t be necessary if it was realistically possible. Also, each Utopian scheme that was implemented in America whether it was Fourierism, Owenism or Oneida failed for similar reasons. The most important of these was the emergence of ideological differences between the members themselves and their figureheads, something that inevitably created divisions and subsequently caused individual communities to be crushed under their own weight. Furthermore, considering that each community which was established had something that made it distinct from the others suggests it was not such variations that lead to failure but something more fundamentally flawed in either the Utopian ideal as a whole or human nature. Finally, because a significant number of these communities failed due to insolvency it seems reasonable to suggest that Fourier’s system of joint-stock partnerships was hopelessly idealistic and could not ever hope to entertain long-term sustainability.
However, this does not necessarily condemn them to complete failure as through tracing the interconnectedness of these systems over the forty years that they were popular it is possible to “examine conceptions of social progress and spatial organisation”;[x]; and even chart the influence they had on later social reform. Thus, the legacy of Fourierism is the discourses it inspired in social progress and reform that have ultimately helped to lead us to our current ideological position. It also provides us with a list of social reform techniques that work and those that don’t.
 


[i]; Jenkins, Lloyd, “Fourierism, Colonization and Discourses of Associative Emigration”, Area, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp 84-91, p 86
[ii];Ibid, p 90
[iii]; Brisbane, Association, quoted in Guarneri, Carl, J, “Importing Fourierism to America”, Journal of the History of ideas, Vol. 43, No. 4, 1982, pp 581-594, p 591
[iv]; Guarneri, Carl, J, “Importing Fourierism to America”, p 581
[v]; Ibid, p 582
[vi]; Guarneri, Carl, J, “Reconstructing the Antebellum Communitarian Movement: Oneida and Fourierism”, Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 16, no. 3 (1996), pp 463-4788, p 475
[vii]; Gabriel, Ralph, H, cited in Guarneri, Carl, J, “Importing Fourierism to America”, p 585
[viii]&Guarneri, Carl, J, “Importing Fourierism to America”, p 586
ix Guarneri, Carl, J, “Reconstructing the Antebellum Communitarian Movement: Oneida and Fourierism”, p 484
x; Jenkins, Lloyd, “Fourierism, Colonization and Discourses of Associative Emigration”, p 84

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