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Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America's Most Radical Idea

August 23, 2016

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Eric Reece set out on a trip to uncover America's history of experiments in Utopia and rediscover the spirit that animated them.

Whether writing about strip mining in Appalachia in Lost Mountain, or "Family, History, and the Kingdom of God" in An American Gospel, Eric Reece always paints vivid portraits of the American landscape—both literal and philosophical—in all its fractured and fascinating complexity. His new book, Utopia Drive, adds to that body of work in more ways than one. It is, first of all, a book of a great American road trip in the tradition of Blue Highways and Travels with Charley in Search of America. But, whereas those trips and books were prompted by a personal need for reflection and discovery, Reece embarked on his journey with larger crises in mind.

 

Because I believe our country is in the midst of great political, economic, social, and environmental crises, I decided to set out in search of those alternatives that now seem impossible but might soon prove inevitable.

 

What Reece is looking (and calling) for is some good old-fashioned utopian thinking. And to find it, he set his road trip itinerary to visit the sites of some of America's utopian communities, which have been far more numerous than you probably imagine:

 

From 1820 to 1850, close to two hundred utopian communities sprang to life. In 1840, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to his British friend Thomas Carlyle, “We are all a little wild with numberless projects of social reform. Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket.” Commercial employment had grown “selfish to the borders of theft,” said Emerson, so there was nothing for the virtuous American to do but “begin the world anew.” It was, after all, a very young country. Such things seemed possible.

 

America is no longer so young. We are still an entrepreneurial nation, but we are mired in the cynicism and complacency that often come with middle age. New neighborhoods are developed around corporate and consumer interests rather than community ones, and unless we make a conscious effort to live otherwise, we're largely removed from both the means of production and each other. And Mr. Reece thinks we're a bit too welcoming of this reality:

 

Americans live in a world we are too ready to accept. We acquiesce too easily to the inevitability of the way things are. Indeed, many of us think of our consumer culture as its own version of utopia, where we are absolved of the responsibility to question where our food, our clothes, our cellular devices, our energy come from.

 

His road trip is an act of personal resistance to that complacency. It is a search for a more sustainable and intentional alternative. Some of the communities he visits are still a going concern, but most have long since disbanded. That is not to say they were not successful, however. The first stop on Reece's tour is the Shaker village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. The Shakers are most well known for their simple yet distinctive furniture and architecture, but they provided the world with more than just an aesthetic; they provided it with an example. While they were renowned for their diligence, and the efficiency and productivity of their villages and farms, the Shaker approach to work was anything but rigid. They were extremely innovative, constantly making improvements to the tools they used and the communities they lived in.

 

In fact, they were inveterate tinkerers, inventing the circular saw … cooling fan, stickpin. threshing machine, chair tilter (exactly what it sounds like), common clothespin, silk reeling machine, apple corer, and condensed milk. They invented, in essence, the dump truck: a four wheeled wagon with a flatbed that could be elevated like a cart. The Shakers invented a mechanical shucker and sheller that allowed them to mill, at Pleasant Hill, four hundred bushels a day. But the Shakers patented almost none of their inventions, believing the patent to be a sign of hubris and greed.

 

They had their share of rather odd behavior and strange beliefs. But much of their inventiveness was a result of their religious beliefs, not in spite of them. For example, the Shakers invented the flat broom we all still use today as a direct result of their "unrelenting pursuit of cleanliness." They were also, Reece tells us, "generalists in their approach to work." They moved from one occupation to another often, and never saw any work as beneath them. Using a broom was just as noble and important as making the broom. And while most people see work as a burden they must endure, they thought of it as a blessing:

 

For them, work was a kind of prayer, a very manifest way to praise what was holy. "The Shaker idea was that in consecration, not compulsion, lay the secret of a successful economy," wrote Edward Deming Andrews. And the Pleasant Hill Shakers were successful. On one year before the Civil War, they sold seventy-nine thousand packets of seeds, seventeen thousand jars of preserves, and eleven thousand brooms to the cities downriver.

 

The Shakers were also, arguably, the first community in America to make gender equality a reality in their communities, and believed (as all the utopian communities in the book do) in full racial equality at a time when it was still legal to own other human beings. They welcomed freed slaves into their community, and the Pleasant Hill Shakers even purchased the freedom of one slave who came to the community so that he wouldn't be sold south. They had a vision of what Heaven on Earth looked like, and they set out to build it. And in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, they succeeded in that project for one hundred years.

Reece doesn't hide the utopians' warts or his own skepticism about aspects of their various visions. But amost every community in the book provided something significant to the American experiment, ranging from the foundations of our public education system to the continuous feed rotary press and rubber type plate that revolutionized printing. Reading of these communities successes, and their peculiarities, is wonderfully entertaining, but Reece does have a larger motive behind his road trip. His exploration of America's utopian past, his "road trip through this country’s alternate economic and social history," is a way for him to critique the current economic landscape and call on us to imagine a better way. He reminds us that:

 

Utopia, by definition, is a product of the imagination, and therein lies its power: it imagines something better, then calls on us to enact that vision.

 

In visiting the spots where these "radical experiments in idealism" have taken place in our nation, he expands our imagination of what is possible and reminds us that it is up to us to build it.

The dreamers that founded the communities he teaches us about had some admittedly wacky ideas that were at times at opposite extremes—from the Shaker's complete celibacy to the "complex marriage" and free love of the Oneidans—but the experiments all contained a challenge to the status quo and a healthy examination of how human beings should inhabit the Earth that is largely absent from our current political and economic debate. Homo economicus, the lone-wolf, supposedly rational individual motivated by self-interest, is the ideal we're taught to strive for. The corporation, in all its various forms large and small, is the primary organizing force of our economic lives today. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is not the only thing. It is not the inevitable conclusion of economic history. And to confront the challenges of climate change and rising income inequality,  Reece believes, we're in dire need of other ideas and new approaches.

The book concludes with a visit to Ohio Cooperative Solar, a part of a network of worker-owned businesses in Cleveland called Evergreen Cooperative, which began turning a profit just five months after launching. The goal is not short-term profit, however, but long-term sustainability of the company and community economic development. They have to be profitable to survive, but they measure success by how many people they can employ. It is a different, more humane bottom line. "Under this model," Reece writes, "wealth means good pay, health benefits, a democratic workplace, and equity stake for every worker, and jobs that don't get outsourced but do reduce the country's carbon footprint."

It is just one idea, but it is a powerful one to end on. It proves that there is another way, that idealism can drive successful businesses that take care of their workers instead of far-off shareholders first—that, in fact, employees are more committed and productive if they are the shareholders. Homo reciprocans, "humans as cooperative actors who are motivated by improving their environment," is the ideal. It gives us a real-world model working today that can be replicated for the reconstruction of our economy and our middle class toward more productive and sustainable ends. And it is a reminder that intentional and deliberate community building shouldn't be relegated to the utopian agrarian experiments of the past, but can and is being effectively applied in modern, urban settings as well.

In Utopia Drive, Eric Reece takes you on a road trip through an obscure and often odd history, and asks us to embark on some utopian visions of our own. If you'd like to go on that journey with him, we have 20 copies available.

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