DO YOU WANT to live in a place where equality reigns? With zero crime and zero jails? Where workers fully own their labor and income inequality doesn’t exist? Well, then, your future is now. Hop on a Greyhound and head over to Louisa County, Virginia, where you’ll find the tofu-making, hammock-weaving community of Twin Oaks. You can join that commune or any of the surprisingly numerous utopian experiments in the US. All you have to do is give up a sizable chunk of your individual identity, and prepare for the reality that you probably won’t be much happier than you are now.
The joke about “utopia” is that the word deconstructs itself. But within Utopia Drive’s first few pages, Erik Reece, an environmental journalist and professor of English at the University of Kentucky, quickly and constructively kills that joke. One of the Greek roots of the word, “ou topos,” means “no place.” But Reece points out that the other Greek root, “eu topos,” means “good place.” When thinking about ways to organize ourselves as a society—a task made increasingly urgent by the rise of wealth disparity and swift environmental decline—the best need not be the enemy of the good.
Reece frames the book as one man’s road trip diary. He limits his travels and therefore his research to communities east of the Mississippi River. Along the way, he finds several different kinds of utopias—secular and religious, urban and agrarian, artistic and practical, past and present—and categorizes their larger aims as places of solitude, solidarity, escape, or reconstruction.
The historical examples that Reece traces all start up around the turn of the 19th century. Reading about the bizarre practices of religious groups like the Shakers, the Rappites, and the Oneida, or the largely secular, socialist communities such as Robert Owen’s New Harmony or Josiah Warren’s Modern Times, you get the sense that the US was in its late twenties, and needed to figure out what the fuck to do with its life, and so it moved out to Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, and started experimenting with communal living.
These kinds of communities “fail” for several reasons. An influential leader dies and internecine conflict dissolves the group. The logical end of celibacy asserts itself. Loafers and layabouts overrun the joint. But Reece is more interested in what we can learn from the attempt to realize earthly heavens.
The book’s freshest idea is the notion that making small changes in local economies can render global financial markets and certain sectors of government irrelevant, and without too much fuss or Libertarian grandstanding, either.
Reece cites the recent development of BerkShares, an alternative local currency in Western Massachusetts, and cooperative companies such as Ohio’s Evergreen Cooperatives, which prioritize people and the environment over profits as examples of present-day applications of early utopian ideas.
(I’d add Seattle artist Natasha Marin’s reparations project, reparations.me, to that list. Why wait for the feds to propose a system designed to partially repair race relations in this country? Or to distribute organic produce to food deserts? Build a website. See what happens.)
I hear the argument that the relatively small number of people who participate in these radical workarounds might be less inclined to vote for economic reforms that affect larger populations. I counter by saying you can vote to make government more equitable and employ your special set of skills to make your town a little more fair for everybody. “Burn it down” is the phrase I hear a lot from activists seeking radical social change, but “rot it out slowly so that only the strongest beams still stand” might be a more achievable, if less sonorous slogan.
Reece’s road trip conceit starts to feel repetitive about halfway through. Nearly every chapter begins with a little drive to a historical site followed by a chat with a local, then a research session at a library, then 40-plus pages of history full of arcane details about wild American thinkers. He finally rewards himself with a drink at a dive bar where he reflects on all of the work he’s done. His jokes in this reflective mode can be line-cook crass. His references to his own relationship with Christianity can be annoyingly vague and off-putting for raging atheists (like me!). But he’s got a plain-talking professor’s ability to isolate the ideas of American utopians, wipe off their theological/political/personal residue, and synthesize them into useful suggestions to improve our current dystopian Trumpscape.
That’s a skill I’d welcome into my commune any day.