Voyages to Utopia: From Monastery to Commune—The Search for the Perfect Society in Modern Times, by William McCord, New York: W.W. Norton, 381 pages, $22.95
For readers (like myself) who learned that utopia means "no place," the title Voyages to Utopia is thoroughly misleading. The places to which the author takes us in this captivating book are all quite real.
William McCord claims that the u in utopia doesn't necessarily derive from the Greek ou, meaning "no" or "not"; it might also come, he says, from eu, which means "well" or "good." He opts for the latter derivation and subsequently takes us to visit a fascinating variety of contemporary experiments in creating a good place to live. The extended tour leads through secular and religious fellowships and communes, socialist states, and—somewhat surprisingly—what the author calls "capitalist utopias."
McCord is a well-known sociologist who, in the course of a long career exploring social problems from delinquency and urban conflict to alcoholism and psychopathy, seems to have made the study of utopian ventures a semiprofessional hobby. He has actually visited each of the utopias he describes and has talked with the people who live there, sounding them out on their experiences, their frustrations, and their hopes. He has also read extensively both in the general literature of utopian experiments and the more specific literature of the ventures he discusses. On top of that, he writes easily and well, almost as if he had never learned the techniques that social scientists commonly employ to reduce all writing to shades of gray.
Almost! Beware of the opening chapter, "Prelude to a Journey." After reading its odd combination of personal reminiscence and anticipatory synopsis, I drew a deep breath in preparation for a 350-page ordeal. But the rest of the book is no ordeal at all. Each successive chapter draws the reader quickly into the life and aspirations of the "utopia" with which it deals and communicates a wealth of insight in remarkably few pages. McCord has an eye for the illuminating incident, the revealing statement, the crucial fact, and he knows how to present each of them effectively. Not once did I find myself thumbing ahead to see how far it was to the end of a chapter.
Voyages to Utopia begins in modern Tahiti and then takes us back to the first encounter of Europeans with "the fragrant isle," comparing the myth of a Pacific Eden with the reality of Tahiti both in the 18th Century and now. After that we remain in the contemporary world, traveling through Israeli kibbutzim; a retreat center and a countercultural commune in California; an anarchist commune in France; an Anglican religious order dedicated to serving the poor; the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; communities of Gandhians in India; the diverse socialisms of Yugoslavia, Hungary, and China; and the so-called capitalist utopias of Singapore, La Jolla, California, and Denmark, with numerous short side trips along the way to see what can be learned from related experiments.
Each chapter begins by trying to make the new utopia attractive to the reader before turning to the problems it has encountered and the ambiguities of its mission or self-understanding. McCord professes to be in sympathy with all the societies he studies, and with the exception of La Jolla and perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood, I found this stance credible. He does not set up straw men.
But neither is he a misty-eyed observer. He has a clear eye for the tensions and contradictions that develop when social ideals become incarnate, and he portrays them candidly. He also puts on his scholar's suit at appropriate times to discuss the deeper sources of success and failure within the ventures he describes.
McCord is generally a reliable reporter and analyst. He makes minor mistakes, such as giving Clark Kerr credit in three occasions for developing the Physical Quality of Life Indexes that Morris David Morris actually developed and that Kerr merely uses. But in those areas where my own knowledge was sufficient to permit an assessment, I was impressed by the depth of McCord's understanding.
It is testimony to the quality of his analysis that he could send to the publisher in 1988 a manuscript containing sizable sections on the "Marxist utopias" of Hungary and China for which he does not have to apologize today. Were he writing those chapters now, he would want to update them, but there is very little he would have to rewrite. While McCord did not predict the dramatic changes that occurred in these countries in 1989, his analysis points clearly to the problems that precipitated them.
REASON readers will be especially curious about the "capitalist utopias" McCord discusses. The only utopia with which the author seems to have no sympathy whatsoever is La Jolla, a wealthy and exclusive enclave near San Diego. But La Jolla also doesn't fit the criteria he claims in the first chapter to have used in selecting utopias to examine. The residents of La Jolla surely did not move there with any intention "to better the condition of all mankind."
Denmark follows La Jolla, and after reading well into the chapter on Denmark I began to suspect that McCord had set up La Jolla as a horrible example of superficiality and selfishness in order to reveal Denmark's "social democracy" as the best alternative around. But my suspicions were unfounded. He does not find the answer in Denmark, either. McCord shows how the rights to welfare that the state has created for its citizens have begun to undermine creativity and personal responsibility, with consequences that now alarm many Danes.
Those who wish to argue with the author will find ample opportunity in the concluding chapter, "Some Cautious Reflections." It's clear McCord has not adequately understood some of the differences between bureaucracies and markets. He caricatures Adam Smith and fails fully to appreciate F.A. Hayek. But these are relatively minor quibbles.
The book contains valuable counsel for those who forget that social visions must find institutions capable of receiving them, and even more valuable counsel for those who will not read this book or any like it because they are too busy trying to create such institutions by force. But McCord also reminds libertarians of the great variety of yearnings and temperaments that must be satisfied in any enduring society.
Paul Heyne is a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Washington, Seattle.