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Robert Owen and the 19th century utopian alternatives

We are today, at the beginning of the 21st century in a situation never seen before; more than half of the world's population lives in a city. This is true in under-developed, developing and developed countries. The urbanisation process, in its contemporary form, started over two hundred years ago with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the birth of Capitalism. The fortress-market towns of the medieval times turned into cities where production and consumption enjoyed the proximity of each other. However, the organisation of today's cities – at least in capitalist industrialised country - did not come at once, and the terms urban planning have not always been fashionable.

Indeed, the intellectual trend of the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, towards the end of the 18th century, was of non-interference. It was very logical in the democratic process taking place at the time, for the likes of Adam Smith, to see the end of heavy feudal restrictions. A market society, they claimed, would only self regulate if it remained free. With free enterprise and equal opportunities, greater wealth would be to the benefit of all. Quickly, existing cities began to expend and, factories and mines developed with their own housings into new towns. However, the capitalist spirit which is one of rationalisation meant that factory owners, in order to increase their profit, spend little into the housing constructed for their workers. They quickly built cheap, small and poorly lighted dwellings in which the new and ever growing urban working class was to spend its life. But it did not go unnoticed, as the 18th century Enlightenment also changed the mentality towards the problem of poverty. Long considered on religious bases as a cross human kind had to carry, it became an evil that should and "must be eliminated by all means" (Benevolo,1967).

The 19th century saw, from St Simon's early utopian ideas to Godin's effective familistere, different successful businessmen devoting their time and their fortune to the development of an alternative to the chaotic emergence of industrial towns. What set them apart from any other businessman is not only their altruism - in believing that human beings need light and space - but that they understood the fact that a happier worker would certainly become a better, more effective worker. Among these men is Robert Owen who did, on several occasion, create or take part to the realisation of these, somehow utopian, alternatives. His projects mainly focused on two aspects. Firstly and on what could be considered as a physical level, he was to offer to the members of his communities good working and housing conditions; that is shorter hours, more space, more light and a decent ventilation system. Secondly, on the intellectual level, he developed plans for a better education for all, cultural enlightenment and entertainment on a regular basis.

It is essential, if one is to realise the importance and impact of these project in defining what was to become the standards of living of our society, to understand the state and the conditions of what the 19th century new industrial towns had to offer to the working class. It is only by contrast to this situation that Owen's projects were treated as utopia. Utopia is not simply the promise of a different world, but the promise of a better world, and if today the work of Owen can be criticised, it is on a different ground that the one used at the time. His ideas for better living and working conditions are generally good but, the way he considered the human condition in a strict optic of labour clearly assess the limit of his thought.

It is generally agreed upon the fact that it is the phenomenon of the enclosure which launched the Industrial Revolution. Opening the fields enabled a better and a more rational exploitation of the land and, turned those who used be legitimate cultivators into "mere tenants" (Benevolo, 1967). It soon led to rural exodus which in turn became a fast urbanisation process. By separating the people from the land, it drove the peasants to the mine or the factory where work was available and labour was wanted. Mines and factories, with their own dwellings, quickly agglomerated into towns and cities of their own. Aside from these new urban places, existing towns and cities, once restricted to religious, cultural and market activities, joined the industrial development led by the emerging spirit of capitalism, "sometimes disguised as democracy" (Mumford, 1961).

The new capitalist urban order was one of chaos in which space was no longer a geographical statement but a property to which was attached a market value. Also, the working class when rural, used to be to some extent, self sufficient. The alienating process that Marx saw as the main vice of capitalism and which separated the working force from the production changed that state of things. People started to work for a wage as labour became a commodity. This wage in most cases was barely sufficient to provide the minimum. Also as the production process was then separated from the consumption process the physical urban shape get transformed. It created all sorts of changes that the working class had to adjust to, which in the light of an agricultural tradition looked like aberrations. The different activities which constitute the life of a man were then totally separated in space (Cowley, 2001). Industrial towns mixed working and production places, consumption places and social places without the smallest sense of planning. The free market was based on free enterprise and it had to remain.

Leonardo Benevolo sees the inflation that went along the Napoleonic wars as the main explanation to the development of the very low standard of housing that appeared at the beginning of the 19th century (Benevolo, 1967). The war has had several bad economical consequences. The production of raw material made available in priority to the war effort and the increasing price of labour left England in a dreadful economic situation, the cost of life having increased by almost hundred per cent over a period of twenty five years. This, added to an increase of the population due to the improvement of the agricultural production, generated a new and inadequate distribution of the population in the recently developed urban centres. The construction of new housing was almost entirely left to private speculators who, in a climate of competition could only generate profit by lowering the cost of buildings, that is the quality of the work. Increasing the rent was hardly an option given the low wages and the long hours of the working class.

"It is indeed a monstrous state of things!" claims The Times in 1843 (in Engels, 1968). Although it is not believed that the situation was worse in cities than it was in the countryside, the over crowding and the individual space available made the sanitary conditions unbearable. Sewers ran open along the streets and rubbishes piled up at every corner. Also, to the factory owner's convenience, working class dwellings were built in direct proximity of the factories. People started to suffer from what was going to become a major problem in every industrial town: pollution. Air and water were soon saturated by the waste of the industrial process. It is simply because London have dominant western winds that the east-end has developed into an essentially working class area. However, if the absence of urban planning associated to the expansive nature of capitalism worsen the chaos, it did not go unnoticed anymore. Intellectual circles followed by the public opinion were chocked by this horrible state of things.

Amongst these intellectual, Robert Owen was a successful businessman about to spend his life working at the improvement of the working class reality. For him this improvement went through the simple socialist idea that "a radical social vision is the end, profitable business the means" (Markus, 1993). He is in the league of the first utopian socialists tackling the problems developed by the first phase of urbanisation that are the "factory cities" and "towns as workshop". Although they remained, for most of them, labour orientated in their ideologies, they clearly stood against urbanism and capitalism in their original stages. Their ideas, and experiences, firmly emphasised the mistakes made by the classic and neo-classic economists in praising non-interference. Owen's claim for a radical utopianism will take place throughout a social and educational experiment. To capitalism, which spontaneously generates its own momentum has to be opposed rational planning. This leads him to develop in his new co-operative village, housings with space, light and effective ventilation as standard for a decent life opposed to the dark, quickly built, unsanitary buildings as constructed by the profit-motivated private speculators. It is only from this ground that he believed one can create a humanist and rationally efficient working organisation. The plan developed first at New Lanark and later in what was to be dubbed ironically the "quadrangular paradise" was very ambitious. Indeed, not only Owen improved working conditions in the mills of New Lanark and built decent dwellings on their side, transforming the site into a co-operative village, there took place his first social and educational experiment. On the first of January 1816 opened at, and originally for the community of New Lanark, The Institution for the Formation of Character. The very title, which today would recall in our mind George Orwell's worse distopia, clearly assesses why Owen in his times was considered an utopian. By formation of character, Owen wanted to emphasise on education. Education for all; compulsory for the youngest, voluntary for the others. His opening speech, Leonardo Benevolo claims, "is of the greatest interest: here for the first time a philanthropic enterprise was taking the form of a permanent educational organisation" (Benevolo, 1967). The whole speech would be worth a quote, but in substance, it consist in three innovations: a comprehensive education accessible to the whole community, adequate accommodations to house these activities and, as a future prospect, opening the institution to the neighbourhood of New Lanark. His particular interest in the development of children still sounds very enlightened today. It shows specially in these two quotes concerning young and older child.

"Their chief occupation will be to play and amuse themselves in severe weather(…)for to give children a vigorous constitution, they ought to be kept as much as possible in the open air". "For the benefit of the health and spirit of the children both boys and girls(…)it is intended to give them as much diversified innocent amusements as the local circumstances of the establishment will admit." (Owen, in Benevolo, 1967, my italics).

It is based on the belief that human beings are the result of their social environment that Owen developed the setting of New Lanark. Creating a self sufficient cooperative village, he re-installed meaning and fulfilment in the industrial work. In New Lanark, alienating labour which at the time, plagued the rest of the English working class was eliminated. This success pushed him towards new horizons, generalized, his ideas needed broader applications. It is in 1820 that Owen presented a report to the County of Lanark which exemplifies how his "ideal villages" could be a solution to the growing problems of unemployment and poverty. Because of the very nature of capitalism, he claimed, employers consider technical equipment on the same level as labour force; work is as well as a tool, a commodity. Since mechanical productivity increases faster than human productivity and that one want to produce only the amount of goods that can be consumed, the only mean to keep constant profit is to reduce the use of labour force. The worst aspect of this circle is that unemployment which generates poverty can in turn reduce the consumption leading to more unemployment. This is the emergence of the socialist thought which isolated the evil aspect of capitalism to what Owen already had concrete alternatives.

The solution was to give the poor, who have learned how to be poor, better habits. This had to take place throughout educational programs and rewarding work. To complement this reform, he felt most of the work had to be done on the youngest part of the population. To prevent children from adopting their parents' bad habits, one had to show them the right way. And this, he believed could only be achieved via education and cultural stimulation. The ideal villages in which such a program would take place had several characteristics. Regarding the amount of people to live and work in the villages, he estimated the maximum at two thousand with a best equilibrium around one thousand. It also had to include a fair amount of land open to cultivation, although most of the production would remain industrial. Finally the buildings themselves had to be divided as follows: the great square would includes "accommodations for the adults, common dormitories for the children, store rooms, guest rooms and infirmary" while a central building would house "the church, the school, common kitchens and a refectory" (Benevolo, 1967). The individual accommodations had to offer heating and ventilation while presenting the lodgers with an open view on the countryside at the back and an opening onto the square at the front. It represented a luxury, at the time unknown to the working class. These proposals were severely criticised in England and Owen had to move to America, the new land of utopia, to see the accomplishment of the project. Although the end of his life was not as active as the beginning, he already had paved the way for the development of trade unions and co-operative societies, and, a little everywhere, Owenite and other socialist communities started to develop.

To some extent, Owen's project was a success. What was once a dream became reality. He also provided generations of worker with a sense of hope. The knowledge that bad did not have to become worse, and that life was ready to be improved if only one with the means to improve was ready to put his mind to it. However, when one takes a close look at his project and achievement a sense of unfinished emerges.

Indeed, no matter how humanist he was, his whole project was based on an ideology of work, to create perfect cities of production. The principle of improving people's environment in order to make them better people was not totally disinterested. For Owen, happier people mainly meant happier workers; happier workers, better workers. Also, although the idea of community is and has always been appealing to human kind, the removal of the children from the direct proximity of the family is only a repeat of the philosophy of the ancient Greek city of Sparta. Sparta used to remove children (boys) from three years old to educate them in a military ideology. They were trained to feel, and become, members of a society, of a community, as opposed to the feeling of belonging to a family. Owen's premises were precisely the same, to the difference that instead of growing and training soldier, he developed workers with an ethic of work and a strong sense of community. On that respect, Godin's Familistere of Guise was perhaps more successful and enduring than Owen's ideal villages for it was built around and developed with the family as core of the community.

It is most certainly by making mistakes that one learns. It is the case at least for urban planning. It is the chaos that followed the first urbanisation process of the Industrial revolution that pushed Owen to consider more effective alternatives. It not only generated the birth of modern town planning, but also presented us with the importance of a general, although basic, education as an absolute necessity in the accomplishment of a happy and meaningful life. However, what appears to be the limit in Owen's and the other 19th century utopian socialists' thought is their reduction of the human condition to the process of labour. Also, although it is maybe hard to blame them for it, most of them did not realise that the future of industrialisation was going to escape the control of the workers as well as the manufactory owners to end in the hands of people remote from the production process itself, the real capital owners, the investors.

London, December 2001.

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