Omnigamy in Fourier's utopia - Christopher Prendergast

Omnigamy in Fourier's utopia - Christopher Prendergast

Fourier's fantastic and minutely detailed descriptions of his utopian society, a world re-ordered to make the satisfaction and reproduction of human 'passions' central, was also a critique of the early industrial capitalism of his time. It later influenced Marx and Engels, Walter Benjamin, Andre Breton's Surrealism and the Situationist theories of Debord and Vaneigem.

"Commerce, which is vaguely defined as free exchange, is merely one method of free exchange, and not the best. To define it more precisely, commerce is a mode of exchange in which the seller has the right to defraud with impunity and to determine by himself without arbitration the profit which he ought to receive. The result is that the seller is the judge of his own case while the buyer is deprived of protection against the rapacity and cheating of the seller. It makes no sense to say: “Good faith ought to reign in commerce.” One should say: “Good faith ought to reign in order to destroy commerce.”" (The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier. Selected Texts on Work, Love, and Passionate Attraction. Translated, Edited and with an Introduction by Jonathan Beecher and Richard Bienvenu. Jonathan Cape, 1972)

Engels saw Fourier as a forebear of the socialist movement;

"...we find in Fourier a criticism of the existing conditions of society, genuinely French and witty, but not upon that account any the less thorough. Fourier takes the bourgeoisie, their inspired prophets before the Revolution, and their interested eulogists after it, at their own word. He lays bare remorselessly the material and moral misery of the bourgeois world. He confronts it with the earlier philosophers’ dazzling promises of a society in which reason alone should reign, of a civilization in which happiness should be universal, of an illimitable human perfectibility, and with the rose-colored phraseology of the bourgeois ideologists of his time. He points out how everywhere the most pitiful reality corresponds with the most high-sounding phrases, and he overwhelms this hopeless fiasco of phrases with his mordant sarcasm.
Fourier is not only a critic, his imperturbably serene nature makes him a satirist, and assuredly one of the greatest satirists of all time. He depicts, with equal power and charm, the swindling speculations that blossomed out upon the downfall of the Revolution, and the shopkeeping spirit prevalent in, and characteristic of, French commerce at that time. Still more masterly is his criticism of the bourgeois form of the relations between sexes, and the position of woman in bourgeois society. He was the first to declare that in any given society the degree of woman’s emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation.
But Fourier is at his greatest in his conception of the history of society. He divides its whole course, thus far, into four stages of evolution – savagery, barbarism, the patriarchate, civilization. This last is identical with the so-called civil, or bourgeois, society of today – i.e., with the social order that came in with the 16th century. He proves “that the civilized stage raises every vice practiced by barbarism in a simple fashion into a form of existence, complex, ambiguous, equivocal, hypocritical” – that civilization moves “in a vicious circle”, in contradictions which it constantly reproduces without being able to solve them; hence it constantly arrives at the very opposite to that which it wants to attain, or pretends to want to attain, so that, e.g., “under civilization poverty is born of superabundance itself”.
Théorie de l’unite universelle, Fourier, 1843 and Le nouveau monde industriel et sociétaire, ou invention du procédé d'industrie attrayante et enaturelle distribuée en séries passionnées, Fourier, 1845] " (Frederick Engels;
Socialism: Utopian and Scientific)

It has also been clamed that Fourier was the first to theorise the possibility of "the greenhouse effect";

In the 1820s Fourier calculated that an object the size of the Earth, and at its distance from the Sun, should be considerably colder than the planet actually is if warmed only by the effects of incoming solar radiation. He examined various possible sources of the additional observed heat in articles published in 1824[10] and 1827.[11] While he ultimately suggested that interstellar radiation might be responsible for a large portion of the additional warmth, Fourier's consideration of the possibility that the Earth's atmosphere might act as an insulator of some kind is widely recognized as the first proposal of what is now known as the greenhouse effect.[12]

In his articles Fourier referred to an experiment by de Saussure[13], who lined a vase with blackened cork. Into the cork, he inserted several panes of transparent glass, separated by intervals of air. Midday sunlight was allowed to enter at the top of the vase through the glass panes. The temperature became more elevated in the more interior compartments of this device.[1]. Fourier concluded that gases in the atmosphere could form a stable barrier like the glass panes. This conclusion may have contributed to the later use of the metaphor of the 'greenhouse effect' to refer to the processes that determine atmospheric temperatures. Fourier noted that the actual mechanisms that determine the temperatures of the atmosphere included convection, which was not present in de Saussure's experimental device.


The Callaghan administration once toyed with the idea of having a Minister of the Family. What with the debacle of back-to-basics and other such mantras, the arrival on these shores of Fourier in translation is perhaps timely. The Fourierist utopia does not have a Minister of the Family, but it does have a Minister of Amorous Relations. Her duties - the Minister is 'une ministre' - are not specified in any detail (in The Theory of the Four Movements she is mentioned briefly in connection with a characteristically ingenious and complicated scheme for the use of courtship rituals in the raising of a large army, whereby the young women follow the young men, love-choices are made and all-round morale is correspondingly higher).* It is doubtless one of her tasks therefore to help organize the regime of what Fourier delightfully calls, in Le Nouveau monde amoureux, omnigamy. As the name suggests, the omnigamous order is open to all, and it is an order in which social life is conceived as an ongoing party. The Minister's choreographing talents might be somewhat stretched where apparently dissonant desires are concerned, but such is Fourier's capacity to think of everything and attend to all the angles, even the potentially most recalcitrant situations are amenable to Fourierist remedy. Here is a typical dilemma, not in fact for the Minister but for the system - or rather the systematique, an entity at once rule-bound and infinitely permutable: Urgèle, aged eighty, intensely desires Valere, aged twenty, and the problem is how to overcome Valère's 'natural antipathy' to sleeping with a woman sixty years older than himself.

The solution comes in a form that gives us virtually the whole of Fourier in a nutshell. Valère's multiple activities across the social division of labour have brought him into contact with Urgèle at various points in the system: as a five-year old, he has enrolled in the Blue Hyacinths group - one of the many devised for the education of the young - here he has been taught by Urgèle, the group's President; Urgèle is also the Doyenne of the engravings group, in which Valère has shown considerable talent. He has moreover shown even greater talent in the science known as 'amorous algebra' or 'amour compose', where once again Urgèle, in her long and active career, has been something of an expert - it is a science that requires substantial amounts of both practice and theory. Finally, Valère has harboured ambitions to join one of the Industrial Armies of the 9th Degree - dispatched to the Rhine for a vast project of economic reconstruction - but to join it one has to have participated in eight campaigns, and Valère, alas, has taken part in but two. However, since Urgèle at the time was High Matron or Hyper-Fairy of the army - in charge of the 'sympathies accidentelles' of the 300,000 serving men and women - she managed to invoke a clause enabling Valère to sign up without the requisite qualifications. Valere is thus linked to Urgèle by at least four relations, sub-divided into sets of kinds: two 'liens amicaux A' and two 'liens fédéraux F'. The consequence is to engender in Valère's heart strong feelings of gratitude, on the back of which he will accede to Urgèle's desire; repugnance gives way to sympathy, and, from this felicitous combine, we get a new inflection of the indefinitely various 'series passionnées'.

Andre Breton sought to claim Fourier for Surrealism. One can see why though Fourier's imaginings put Breton's in the shade. More to the point, Michel Butor took the fable of Valère and Urgèle as paradigmatic, of Fourier's vision of social harmony. He also reminds us (in the 1973 edition) that this section of Le Nouveau monde industrial was excised by Fourier's disciples from the 1845 edition; anxious to make Fourier's message respectable by downplaying the decisive emphasis on the emancipation of sexual relations, they effectively mutilated it. Fourier placed the word 'orgie' at the centre of his preoccupations and thereby takes us on a trip to the wilder shores of utopian imagining. He does so for several reasons, but principally because the link between pleasure and wealth is the very ground of his conception of an alternative social order. And alternative it most definitely is. Fourier was an 'economist' (of sorts) who detested political economy and indeed the entire legacy of the Enlightenment, which he identified with the perverse, misery-inducing set of arrangements he calls Civilization. It is important to start here, given Fourier's reputation as a utopian socialist. This is in many ways a misnomer, but if we are to think of Fourier in relation to the emergence of socialist thought, we have to do so on his terms, which begin not from a modification but a complete rejection of the categories of Enlightenment political and economic discourse and the modern form of commercial society based on rights and contract which those categories legitimized. In this respect, he can be said to belong to the tradition of anti-Enlightenment critique that, in its English versions, Raymond Williams examined in Culture and Society. What is distinctive about his place in this tradition, however, is the priority given to pleasure. He in fact echoes certain forms of Enlightenment thought in making 'happiness' the object of human and social aspiration - he is close here, for example, to Bentham, the only Enlightenment philosopher for whom he showed any respect - but then offers his own singularly upbeat version of what happiness is: 'Happiness consists in having many passions and many means of satisfying them'. Society is to be arranged not just to gratify passions but to produce passions, to multiply them and, as part of the same process, the means of gratifying them. Against the perversions of Civilization (abundance leading to scarcity, the waste and destruction of competition), Fourier proposes (and predicts) the reign of Harmony, an economy of delights based on cooperation and mutuality, the organizational matrix of which is the Phalanx and the Phalanstery, the complex building in which the community is housed.

Attractions and Analogies
Life in the Phalanstery is exceedingly agreeable. No one works in any particular occupation for more than two hours at a stretch - this is an iron rule; there is much feasting, and enormous amounts of love-making. Fourier does not dispute the imperative of the division of labour; on the contrary, he celebrates it, but in a form which encourages and enables everyone to do what they want to do, thus abolishing at a stroke the opposition of pleasure and work. 'The ordered society,' writes Fourier in The Theory of the Four Movements, 'requires pure, ardent passions'. The passions are God-given, the elementary fluid of the cosmos, and the purpose of 'science' is to discover their mechanism and the manner in which they can be deployed to ensure the maximum of human well¬being. One key to this science is in fact literary, rhetorical. Fourier, like many others in the nineteenth century, founds a philosophical programme on a figure of speech, analogy. The solution to all our problems, argues Fourier, lies in recognizing our essentially metaphoric relation with Nature. The Theory of the Four Movements works entirely from this poetic conception of the structure of things. It postulates life, the whole cosmos, as consisting of four 'movements': material, organic, animal and social, all of which are governed by what Fourier calls the Law of Passionate Attraction and between which there exists an intricate network of analogies. One of the aspects of Passionate Attraction is that everything in some way reflects everything else. Metaphor, a principle of sameness within difference, is everywhere at work, and provided one can transcend the rationalist epistemologies of the Enlightenment, one might then arrive at a completely different notion of human socialization, and with that a whole new conception of economy, the division of labour, the social distribution of goods and gratifications, and so on - in short, the lineaments of Utopia.

The analogically ordered universe bypasses not only the distinction of work and pleasure but also the conflict of desire and repression - Fourier's view of society is also, so to speak, resolutely anti-Freudian. But this does not mean that the expression of the passions is an anarchic affair. The passions have to be regulated, not in a disciplinary fashion but in a mathematical one. They have to be 'combined' according to the law of 'attraction' and ordered according to the principle of the 'series'. Attraction and seriality group individuals relative to the activities and benefits associated with a particular passion. If I have a passion for shoe-making, I can make shoes - subject to the two-hour rule - with others sharing the same passion. But if I also want to grow crops or be a poet, the intrinsically productive nature of desire, allied to the two-hour rule, is such that all I have to do is go join the groups dedicated to farming and writing. I can do this sort of thing indefinitely, according to how the passions speak in me; the permutations of the series are theoretically vast. To the rationalist objection that such a variegated and mobile system of the division of labour must be incorrigibly inefficient, Fourier plays his trump card: I seek an increase in wealth as much as you, wealth-creation is in fact the raison d'être of human life, but under my system, far from wealth diminishing, it will augment three-fold - sometimes the claim is that it will be four-fold.

The Fourierist cornucopia of course resembles the dream of a fruit cake, and it will come as no surprise that fruits and fruitiness, the sucré, are important items in the cornucopia—the greatest deficiency of Athenian society, according to Fourier, was the absence of sugar. Fourier himself never once entertained the thought that he might be mad - though his unbreakable self-confidence could be interpreted as symptomatic of just that condition. Engels referred to his writing persona as 'imperturbably serene', but was quite wrong in seeing this as the attribute of 'assuredly one of the greatest satirists of all time'. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Fourier's writings than the satirical. He was deadly serious, in an almost ponderously matter-of-fact way, and it is one of the more seductive effects of prolonged contact with his world that we can end, rather like Valère with Urgèle, by yielding to the prima facie improbable as if it were the most natural thing in the world. If there is madness here, it is a peculiarly self-normalizing one. Roland Barthes rightly said that Fourier's universe is one in which 'il n y a pas de normality', but its way of expelling the normal is by making the eccentric appear ordinary. This is partly a matter of the earnestness with which Fourier displaces the hierarchy of what we hold to be important - the question of sugar and cakes is at least as important as the question of war. It is also partly a matter of Fourier's manic attention to detail. Everything in the Fourierist cornucopia comes labelled and classified. In the spheres of both taxonomy and prediction, Fourier is indefatigably precise. The passions, though multiple, can be reduced to a set of 'radical' passions. There are twelve of these, plus the passion of 'unityism, a kind of meta-passion gathering up all the others - Fourier does not bother himself with the logical paradoxes of the class of all classes. Five of the twelve are the 'luxurious' passions, four the 'affective passions', three the 'distributive' passions, further sub-divided into the 'cabalistic', the 'butterfly' and the 'composite'. All are necessary to the economy of the Phalanstery, but the sub-divided distributives are a special Fourierist preoccupation. The 'cabalistic' governs rivalry and intrigue—its productive energies quite different from the destructive force of competitive individualism; the 'composite' joins the spiritual and the sensual and is another way of naming what we conventionally call 'love'; the 'butterfly' is something of a favourite, ensuring the principle of a variegated division of labour. The play of the passions yields 810 'characters'; thus, allowing for the two sexes, the population of the Phalanstery should consist of no more and no less than 1,620 persons.

Chaos and Harmony
Or, take Fourier's exactly charted account of human history, schematized in the Table of the Progress of Social Movement: History unfolds in four main phases: the first (sub-divided into seven periods) is the phase of Ascending Chaos, the second (sub-divided into nine periods) the phase of Ascending Harmony, the third (sub-divided into nine periods) the phase of Descending Harmony, the fourth (sub-divided into seven periods) the phase of Descending Chaos. The last phase terminates with bad news:
'End of the animal and vegetable world after an approximation of 80.000 years' - 'approximation' is an unusual concession, although he does say that as a rule of thumb the 'calculi' are 'subject to the exception of an eighth or ninth'. But there is also much good news. Armed with Fourierist wisdom, the construction of Harmony across 'the entire globe' will take a mere six years - and if delayed, the souls of those whose bodies have suffered the misfortune of living and dying under the abominable regime of Civilization will participate in the new order of things. Harmony will last 70,000 years. There will be thirty-seven million poets the equal of Homer and thirty-seven million mathematicians the equal of Newton. Sex will be terrific, especially for women, and all tastes will be catered for. Meals will be even better, three times as delicate and three times as copious at a third of the cost prevailing in Civilization - gastrosophically, Fourier is a strict Trinitarian; the wines will be first class, many of them grown in the North Pole, which will be warm for the duration, and of course the sea will be made of lemonade. Above all, when the End finally comes, every single soul will migrate to another, more hospitable planet.

Ian Patterson and Gareth Stedman Jones include the Table in their beautifully prepared edition of the book, which appears, somewhat inappositely, all things considered, in the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Stedman Jones has written a masterly introduction, contextualizing Fourier from the point of view of intellectual history. His main, and important, move is to rescue Fourier from the anachronistic and teleological readings which posit Fourier as an 'anticipation' of Marx and Engels. This represents a failure to take Fourier on his own terms, not only in looking back with the benefit of teleological hindsight, but also in looking down: Fourier as anticipation is but a feeble anticipation of the stronger, more mature system of Marx and Engels. Stedman Jones also makes the crucial point that you cannot understand Fourier's social prescriptions without reference to his cosmology - though that is arguably something of a pity; if Fourier is about the 'origins of socialism', then the origins of socialism are inextricably bound up with a debate about religion. On the other hand, exemplary though Stedman Jones's contextualization is, it is very much a question as to what it really means to take Fourier on his own terms. Viewing him in the perspective of intellectual history, though indispensable, risks losing sight of what is so utterly bizarre about Fourier's thought, what makes it so marginal, 'tout a fait a cote', as Barthes puts it. I suspect that Stedman Jones's co-worker, Ian Patterson, in his role as both translator and editor, is more sympathetic to this dimension of Fourier.

For a translator to follow at close range the garrulous rhythm of Fourier-speak is a demanding business. Fourier wrote endlessly - the unpublished manuscripts run to thousands of pages. If he did so, this is not just because he had a lot to say, it is because there is, by definition, in the writing of utopia always something more to say. Writing utopia is writing for ever, in the perspective of something permanently deferred. The Theory of the Four Movements is itself offered by Fourier as only a 'glimpse' of the text yet to be written. Moreover, as a work of 'theory', the strictly theoretical section is remarkably brief. Perhaps we should be thankful for t his: Fourier's cosmological foundationalism means that what counts for him as a very deep question is the following: 'Why does the Earth have a moon and not Venus? As translator, Patterson coasts along in a style at once jaunty and deadpan. The Theory of the Four Movements is not in fact one of Fourier's linguistically most inventive texts - Fourier, Barthes claimed, was a 'logothete'. Linguistic invention in Fourier is linked to the utopian theme, especially at the level of nomenclature; re-naming is an index of the effort to write utopia avant la lettre. Patterson is mercifully spared the amorous pair of Le Nouveau monde amoureux, Jouvenceaux' and Jouvencelles', but he does have to deal with Damoiseau', as the counter to Damoiselle'. He comes up with 'Lads', which won't quite do - though youthful, Damoiseaux are certainly not laddish.

It is, however, as compiler of the index that Patterson's deep affinities with the Fourierist project become apparent. The index is a must, not so much an aid as a work of art, and one which, moreover, by virtue of its internal cross-referencing possibilities, affords the eminently Fourierist pleasures of the serial combinatoire. There is, happily, an entry for lemonade: `lemonade (aigresel), sea tasting of'. Partisans of free love will be encouraged by the logical lock placed on fidelity: 'fidelity, sexual, contrary to human nature; illusory'. Cosmological alarmists will be drawn to the entry for 'axis': 'global, defective position of'. The entry for Civilization gives us something of Fourier's taxonomic fervour: 'a passing scourge; compared to a sloth; degrading to women; disharmony in; general predispositions of; increasing insecurity of; making the best use of; only the minority of the globe; oppresses love; pleasures of, vain; system of development of; talents repressed by; uselessness of truth in; wretchedness of'. We may be impatient to discover where an entry for 'dwarfs' might lead in a meditation on the future of society - height is a matter of some importance, since under Harmonian arrangements 'two or three inches will be added to the human stature each generation until it reaches an average of 84 inches or 7 feet'. Curiosity will doubtless be aroused by the entry 'counter-giraffe'. But for the full force of Fourierist délire, we should turn to the entry for Truth: 'truth, benefits of; incompatibility with Civilization; see also giraffe' - the giraffe is the 'hieroglyph' of truth in the system of natural analogies because, possessed of a long neck, it can see more than the other animals.

I once found myself in the unlikely and unpromising situation of lecturing on Fourier to a collection of hard-nosed economists in Florence. For the first ten minutes I was demoralized by the look of glazed bafflement and boredom on their faces. After twenty minutes, however, the look had changed to one of rapt attention. This had nothing to do with the merits of my exposition and everything to do with the strange charm of what was being expounded. Perhaps, trapped for the hour, they were just letting their hair down, joining, briefly and in weakly modest form, the Fourierist party before resuming their intellectually taxing pursuits. But the discussion afterwards revealed that they weren't just partying. They had caught, and were hooked by, the essential: whatever the absurdity of Fourier's speculations, here was someone imagining something absolutely other. It is not often that we are invited to do this. Fourier may have given loopy answers to the questions he poses, but he quite rightly insisted that we tend to treat problems as insoluble simply because we ourselves have failed to solve them. This perhaps is the function of the utopian genre. No one has given a fully satisfactory answer to the question what makes human beings happy. Wandering down the high-ways and by-ways of Fourier's world at least discloses the magnitude of the question.

* Charles Fourier, The Theory of the Four Movements, edited by Gareth Stedman Jones and Ian Patterson, Cambridge 1996, £40 HB, £14.95 PB.

Source; New Left Review no. 225, London Sep/Oct 1997.


The Familiestère Godin was constructed between 1856-1859, by the industrial entrepreneur, Jean-Baptiste-André Godin inspired by the ideas of Fourier and Saint-Simon. As a social experiment, work facilities were linked to a communal settlement, equipped with all the necessary amenities: residential buildings, a pool, cooperative stores, a garden, a nursery, schools and a theatre (the temple of the Familistère community). This experiment lasted in cooperative form until 1968.