Utopia – The TV show

Posted by Marc Hodak on September 5, 2014 under Futurama, Governance | Read the First Comment

Fox, in the kind of an understatement we have come to expect in the marketing of reality TV, is billing its new fall series “Utopia” as “television’s biggest, boldest social experiment.” The show’s premise taps into the age-old dream of creating a perfect society. This dream burns particularly brightly in the treasured eighteen to thirty-four year-old demographic, marinated in the you-can-do-anything ethos. These are the very folks who would ask: Can a group of random strangers actually create a perfect society?

No, they can’t.

It sounds almost mean to put it so bluntly, as if I wanted them to fail. Not true. I am an ardent utopian for as long as I can remember. I spent summers in grade school drawing pictures of ideal cities, imagining happy and productive citizens living in peace and prosperity amidst stunning public spaces. In college, I studied history, technology, and economics, which eventually led to my current work in building or enhancing the governance of organizations, and teaching governance at the university level. I developed a library on “intentional communities” to study their governance.

“Utopia” (the Fox show) might be the first such experiment tried in front of TV viewers, but it is just one more in a long line of attempts at a “perfect society”—over 300 in the U.S. alone. They have been tried by religious zealots, dogmatic atheists, and all degrees of spiritualism and skepticism in between. They have been tried by firebrands bitterly disappointed with the state of the world, and by ordinary people looking simply to escape their daily grind. They have been led by charismatic authoritarians and by collegial intellectuals. They have been organized as communistic societies, where property was owned in common and everyone got the same rewards for their work, and as hyper-individualistic societies, where personal and property rights were held sacred above all, albeit always with some constraints. They have been tried by intact communities relocating en masse to a distant land. And they have been attempted, as with the Fox show, by folks from different walks of life banding together in the wilderness. (Although, with millions of dollars invested in the Fox location, it’s not as dangerous as where the Pilgrims landed.) Some of these communities were second or third generation societies rigorously applying lessons learned from previous attempts.

All of them failed. Seeing how and why can help us understand how this Utopia will fare.

Disney World Doesn’t Count

Whatever utopia might look like, it must be economically viable on a stand-alone basis. The majority of utopian experiments could not pass this simple test; their participants couldn’t create enough food and basic comforts to sustain themselves.

This should not be surprising. Many settlers aiming merely to survive never developed into communities. Businesses, which are explicitly started to be economically viable, fail more than half the time. They fail even without the additional constraints—or impatience—that accompany utopian aspirations.

On the other hand, the 19th century Owenite villages, Fourierist phalanxes and similar utopian concepts were founded on distinctive visions of how people would live and relate to each other. The people drawn to these visions were generally more concerned about how the bounties of society should be apportioned than what it would take to actually create them. Consequently, these communities found themselves bereft of necessities, or rapidly accumulating debt with no way out.

The longest-lived utopian societies looked more like locally owned company towns. Their leaders possessed well above-average business acumen. The Harmonists, a religious commune, were so focused on their material (as well as spiritual) success that after firmly establishing themselves on the banks of the Wabash River, they sold all of their land and buildings—at a profit, to another utopian group—to move near Pittsburgh so they could be closer to eastern markets. There they thrived for decades more. The Perfectionists at Oneida and the Inspirationists at Amana created enterprises so successful that they ended up far outlasting the peculiar communal arrangements of their founders.

Economic viability was not achieved by accident. Their leaders planned for it, and their followers contentedly worked for it, and occasionally sacrificed for it. This is probably why none of the societies that lasted more than eighteen months looked like a leaderless group of strangers embarking on a glorified camping trip.

Of course, if you have a major studio acting as sugar daddy to provide basic supplies, or refreshing your funding because they are making money televising your antics, it dramatically improves your chances of lasting a while.

The Governance Advantage

When I began researching utopian communities, I thought that the ones most likely to succeed would be secular and market-driven. This conveniently conformed to my personal preferences for how an ideal society should look. My research indicated otherwise; the utopian experiments that lasted the longest were invariably theocratic communes. I now realize that was no accident.

Each of these long-lived societies may have had its religious peculiarities. Shakers and Harmonists practiced celibacy. Perfectionists practiced “complex marriage,” whereby any adult could hook up with any other according to an agreement/scheduling system that would make FriendFinder.com blush. But it didn’t matter their particular twist on religion, or how exactly things (and sometimes people) were shared. What mattered was the settlers’ pre-ascribed acceptance of a shared code of conduct, and willingness to follow their leaders down unproved paths.

Disagreements in these communes were sent up a well-defined chain of command for resolution. The ultimate backstop was a respected, charismatic leader who could act as final judge. This system had its controversies, and many communities with these characteristics also failed. But the ones that succeeded had this theocratic glue.

The clear downside of this governance model was its dependence on its charismatic leaders. Of the communities that became economically viable, about 40 percent dissolved shortly after the death or abandonment of their founder. With rare exceptions (more on this in a moment), the rest eventually lost their distinctiveness, looking more and more like their surrounding communities over time.

One of the conceits of the Fox show is: “No laws, but the ones we write.” This will be a problem for a group of people selected, in part, for their diversity of views. Some “settlers” are there to work so they can appreciate the fruits of their labor; some are likely be there to share in the fruits of everyone else’s labor; some are there to meditate; and some are there to party. While each of these goals is arguably utopian, they imply very different living and working arrangements. Will the community be monastic, with a common building for living and working that enables peaceful contemplation or thoughtful discourse? Or will it be a party house where bacchanal pursuits could be indulged after a day in the shops and fields?

The history of people venturing into alien territory trying to figure this out from scratch is clear: Their scarce human capital was frittered away in debates on goals and aims when they needed to be building and planting. Their communities never got off the ground.

The reality behind this reality show

If I were the show’s producer, and I wanted the possibility of a real society emerging from this setting, I would have gotten together a tight-knit group of Anabaptist families, and watched them efficiently build a viable community from scratch. In fact, the (Anabaptist) Amish and Hutterite communities are the only “utopian” societies that survived and maintained their distinctiveness throughout the 19th century to this day. I put “utopian” in quotes because while most people might think of the communities around Lancaster, PA or Yankton, SD as quaint or pleasant, I doubt many of the show’s energetic participants or their viewers would consider them “dream societies.”

On the other hand, if I wanted to the best chance for creating a visual train wreck for a prime time audience, I would choose people of wildly disparate backgrounds and values, and put them in a place without any law “except the ones we make.” I would then plant in their minds, and those of the millions for whom they are performing, an expectation of harmonious perfection. It’s a good bet that the result will be well worth watching.

  • Tony Bergmann-Porter said,

    Your remarks made me think about the Kibbutz movement. I don’t pretend to know much about it (indeed, the following is a straight cut’n’paste from wikipedia):

    “There are now three kibbutz compensation models. 1) The traditional collective kibbutz/kibbutz shitufi, in which members are compensated equally, regardless of what work each member does; 2) the mixed model kibbutz/kibbutz meshulav, in which each member is given a small percentage of his salary along with a basic component given equally to all kibbutz members; and 3) the renewing kibbutz/kibbutz mithadesh, in which a member’s income consists solely of his individual income from his work and sometimes includes income from other kibbutz sources.

    According to a survey conducted by the University of Haifa 188 of all kibbutzim (72%) are now converted to the “renewing kibbutz” model, which could be described as more individualistic kibbutz.”

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