Don’t Be Afraid to Embrace the Utopian Spirit

There’s no substitute for building worker power and winning state power to change the world. But we also shouldn’t reject the utopian spirit that has long driven many to create egalitarian living and working arrangements.

Illustration of members of the Oneida Community in upstate New York, 1896. (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

From Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984 to Lois Lowry’s The Giver, dystopian stories dominate school reading lists. When I was a kid, I assumed that this was because the adults in charge hated children and wanted to give us Major Depressive Disorder. But anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee, author of Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, Red Valkyries, and many other books, has a more compelling and plausible ideological explanation.

As Ghodsee argues in Everyday Utopia: What 2,000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us About the Good Life, these books serve as a warning to searching young minds. In The Giver, a gripping nightmare of a young adult novel (and a Newberry Award winner, which when I was a kid, we learned to recognize as a flag that the book would be a relentless bummer), love is forbidden and babies who are too small or don’t develop perfectly are euthanized, as are the old. In 1984, as in The Giver, children are taken from their mothers at birth. In Brave New World, children are raised collectively in dormitories.

All three books depict societies that have reimagined the nuclear family with horrifying results. “American youth are sometimes taught all three books in quick succession — a veritable smorgasbord of anti-utopianism,” Ghodsee observes. “The message of these books is loud and clear: you may be unhappy with the way things are but forget about trying to change them.”


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