Our nation’s digital billionaires are promising us utopian visions of change through improved technology (massive underground transit, drone-delivered groceries, self driving cars, colonies on Mars) and social experimentation. To a certain extent, the rhetoric and positioning of our present crop of Tech Age wunderkind is not so different from that of the famous utopian socialists, industrialist reformers of the 19th century. These pioneering capitalist-socialist entrepreneurs derived their wealth from exploitative labor practices of the industrial age. Yet they dedicated time and resources to establishing ideal new communities that were self-sustaining and socially progressive, in the hope that these model societies in miniature would radically transform the way people related to one another.
First among these was Robert Owen, the Welsh textile magnate and godfather of European socialism. Owen was deeply troubled by the conditions of urban factory workers, by the history of bloodshed in religious wars in Europe, and by the impacts that unhealthy environments had on the quality of life of poor people. He proposed, first at New Lanark in Scotland, and then in Indiana, to create a radically new environment that would free men and women from the triple tyrannies of “private or individual property, absurd and irrational systems of religion…and marriage, founded on individual property combined with some one of these irrational systems of religion.” His utopian settlement at New Harmony in Posey County, Indiana, was considered a groundbreaking experiment, yet it only lasted two years in its manifestation as a radical, anti-property ownership entity. Later utopians—the Oneidas, the Fouriers, and the Icarians—would all cite Owens as a critical precursor.
But Owen’s vision did not take place in a vacuum; he did not meander into an untouched, pristine landscape (although he envisioned it as one). Before the land by the Wabash river was federally controlled territory in the United States, for most of the 18th century it was farmed by the tribes of the Miami Confederation (The Miami, the Wea, the Piankeshaw, and the Kickapoo, among others). This confederacy was not a loose state of transient nomadic hunter-gatherers, but a settled regional power with established systems of tradition, governance, diplomacy, and in particular ecological management. They were farmers of corn and stewards of deer habitat; they produced and sold maple sugar and they traded furs with the French; in fact, they lived a kind of agrarian, communal existence—no property but common property, a horizontal leadership and authority structure, and relative gender equality—that seems similar to what Owen aspired to create in his communities. (Had Owen known or understood the societies that predated his presence on the soil of the Wabash river, he might have admired their rural character and communal nature.)
In the 19th century, the Miami Confederacy’s position in the Great Lakes region was brutally contested over a period of 60 years, in a conflict known as the Northwest Indian Wars. The central issue was native sovereignty and an increased European squatter presence in treaty-protected indigenous lands. Under British rule and the proclamation of 1793,European settlers were prohibited from encroaching on to native land. After American independence, the federal government threw out the treaty and pursued instead an aggressive policy of settler colonialism. William Henry Harrison was a key figure in this, brandishing both the surveyor’s chain and the longsword in a two-pronged attack on indigenous settlements in the then Territory of Indiana. Harrison sought to protect the squatter-colonials, and to acquire, through purchase or war, the lands which they illegally occupied. By the end of the War of 1812 (which finished in 1814) indigenous resistance had been largely extinguished, most notably at the battle of Tippecanoe, a clash that resulted in the death of Tecumseh, a spiritual leader and anti-colonialist that had organized effective regional resistance to settler encroachment.
It is in the midst of this conflict that Johann Georg Rapp, the charismatic leader of the millenist sect of Rappites, came to purchase the land that would later become New Harmony. In 1812, the Harmony Society under Rapp petitioned then president Thomas Jefferson for the right to purchase land in Pennsylvania. Although the petition for land was denied, “the United States Senate granted the Harmony Society the right to purchase one entire township in the Vincennes District of the Indiana Territory at two dollars an acre with the payment of the first quarter of the amount not due until six years from the date of purchase.” Rapp then purchased 7,000 acres in 1814 along the Wabash river in Indiana territory. In 1815, Rapp’s society of predominantly German emigres traveled to their new town. By 1819, the town had constructed a wool factory, a brewery, vineyards, a winery, a church, a school, and a store, all laid out in a square plan. Rapp and his people, however, were still keen to settle in Pennsylvania, and after (eventually) finding a new site, they prepared to move back and began looking for a buyer for the land. In 1824, Richard Flowers, an agent of the Rappitte community of Harmony, crossed the Atlantic to bring Robert Owen an offer: he could buy the Rappitte town outright for a mere 150,000 dollars, or roughly a third of what it would cost Owens for a comparable property in Britain. Owens ecstatically accepted the offer.
So, let’s catch ourselves up: A democratic collective of indigenous people fight a sixty-year war with colonial powers who undermine and devalue their cultural practices around land as a way of justifying their program of ethnic replacement and manifest destiny. To the fringes of these tenuous borders, to these in-between areas of constant dispute, the federal government sends its most eclectic of settlers, from religious extremists to sex cultists to communitarians, to neither be seen nor heard, but simply to act as placeholders. It is not surprising that the most radical people found their home on the frontier: In performing their exodus from one European cultural environment, they failed to see their role as a mechanism in another—as white skins taking up space, as the moving line of a colonial settler population. It is important to understand that their privilege to enact radical social experiments in ‘the untamed wilderness’ occurred in exchange for their role in occupying contested space. This was the trade that was made.
I think it’s important to reflect on the various ironies at play here. The land in Indiana that was taken away from indigenous people—under the auspices that they could not fully participate in the American federal system because they did not engage in property ownership—was the same land provided to Robert Owen, who acquired it with the explicit purpose of abolishing property ownership. The double standard in logic is mind boggling. When Owens, the wealthy textile industrialist, came to the US to espouse his anti-property ownership stance, he was granted a three-day symposium (complete with a scale model of his proposed community on display) with Congress and a sitting U.S. president that ended with an land deal in his favor . When Tecumseh, leader of the Shawnee, protested that individual property ownership was not an indigenous cultural practice, federal agents took it as proof that native populations could not live peacefully within the new Empire, and used it as a justification to fracture native lands and pursue a program of genocide, displacement, and dissolution.
As Owens’ model of socialism grew in popularity, seeding at least nine copycat communities over the next 30 years, so too did the policy of removal by treaty, a practice that began during the French and Indian War and continued to grow and thrive throughout the century as a tactic for freeing up ‘wilderness’ for settlement by Europeans. In 1830, Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act expanded the policy of removal pioneered in the Great Lakes region to the rest of the country. Jackson did not view indigenous people as sovereign nations. In 1887, the Dawes Act gave the federal government the authority to abolish all communal ownership in tribal lands and parcel out individual tracts to tribe members. Individual ownership was seen as a critical step to assimilating the remaining indigenous people into Euro-American models of ownership and society.
So Owen’s optimistic projects and grand vision, which failed in the long term, only came to initial fruition because of the broader framework in which Owen was operating, and the mechanism his investment provided for a settler colonial government hungry for soldiers in its frontier culture war. This is why his Utopia was truly “no place”: or, at least, it started in no-place–a place wiped of history. In this sense, his secular vision has much in common with the Rappitte colony before him, and indeed a large overlap with settler colonialism and the ‘covenant’ state in general (i.e., settlers who make a pact with God to settle virgin land, and whose ancestors have some divine right to that same place). This is historically true in the American colonies, in South Africa, and in Israel. Utopianism inherently relies on on either a refusal to acknowledge the past, or the active destruction of what existed previously. Utopianism is therefore not a harmless or abstract concept, even when practiced on a small communal scale. How many utopian communities are founded on the fringe of, or deep within, contested land? How easily does utopianism, which rejects existing systems of culture and knowledge, lend itself to settler colonial logic?
There is much in common between Robert Owens of yesterday and the Baron Von Paypals of today. They share a belief that technology offers an opportunity to break with old social systems of oppression. But then they also share a belief in inevitable progress (which also happens to link up with manifest destiny); a reduction of human fulfillment into social programming, and the desire to manipulate human outcomes through the coupling of these two. Above all is the shared sense that these changes must take place in a vacuum and that there is nothing in current or past history that delivers the same values or ideas they espouse. This results in a continuous reinvention of pre-existing cultural institutions, but reframed as something new (Owens reinvented communal property and the Commons, while Silicon Valley continues to “invent” the concept of public transportation in iteration after boring iteration).
The hubris of the capitalist-socialist-entrepreneur should not surprise us because it has many historical analogs. What should surprise us is that this figure, from Jeff Bezos to Elon Musk to Peter Thiel, has emerged not only as a business leader but as a moral leader in our present culture. Why do we fall for the overconfident, unqualified armchair sociologists and their half-baked plots to use other people’s resources for their aggrandized social programs? And why don’t we acknowledge the history of violence this type of thinking brings into fruition? Steadfast and boorish in their vision and their insistence on their good intentions, the socialist-capitalist entrepreneur is a staple of our modern world. We can predict that they will continue to enact their experiments in the landscapes of least resistance.
Featured Image: New Harmony on the Wabash River painted by Karl Bodmer from his visit to New Harmony 1832-1833, printed 1840-1841 in his book “Reisen in das Innere Nordamerikas 1832-1834”.