Charles Fourier, the utopian socialist who lived from 1772 to 1837, has been on my mind. Long ago, Fourier was considered a deep, monumental, visionary thinker. His theories of social organization inspired the establishment of a communal society, the North American Phalanx, in Monmouth, New Jersey, in 1843. It collapsed a little more than a decade later.
Among Fourier’s more spectacular beliefs: One day the oceans will turn into pink lemonade. He wasn’t joking. “His temperament was too ardent, his imagination too strong, and his acquaintance with the realities of life too slight to enable him justly to estimate the merits of his fantastic views,” wrote the Scottish philosopher Robert Adamson.
As with Fourier’s North American Phalanx in the 19th century, so it is with the Juicebox Mafia Phalanx in the 21st. The Juicebox Mafia, of course, is the dismissive term assigned to the Beltway clique of twenty- and thirtysomething journalists known for their love of President Obama, their hatred of conservatives, their opposition to the war on terror, their quasi-religious faith in social science, and, above all, their earnestness.
The Juicebox Mafia arrived in Washington a little less than a decade ago, just as the progressive left assumed its upward trajectory. Everything seems to be going their way. A larger government, universal health insurance, cuts in military spending, withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization—bliss it should be in this dawn for these ardent temperaments, these possessors of strong imaginations, to be alive.
And yet, reading liberal websites and magazines over the last few months, one cannot help but think that their acquaintance with the realities of life is growing increasingly slight.
Someone is filling those juiceboxes with pink lemonade.
I first noticed the Fourierian drift of the Juiceboxers in March, when Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was published to their swoons—especially Piketty’s call for a “global tax on wealth.” Then, in April, the Nation published an essay by Chris Hayes, the MSNBC host, that likened the campaign against climate change to the abolitionist fight against slavery. “The work of the climate movement,” Hayes wrote, “is to find a way to force the powers that be, from the government of Saudi Arabia to the board and shareholders of ExxonMobil, to leave 80 percent of the carbon they have claims on in the ground.” That was followed in May by a Ta-Nehisi Coates cover story in the Atlantic calling for slavery reparations.
Every one of these proposals has been cheered on by the bloggers and pundits and self-described policy wonks that make up the Juicebox Mafia, and their cheers have reverberated from the echo chamber into the mainstream media. And every one of these proposals is utopian—in the literal sense. Not one of them has a chance of being realized.
A global wealth tax, which presupposes some form of world government, will not happen. The not-very-good chances that Chris Hayes’s MSNBC ratings will improve are nonetheless greater than the chances that Saudi Arabia will listen to him. As for Coates’s lionized article, no less a figure than President Obama opposes reparations on the grounds of impracticality and fomenting social division.
Even so, these neo-utopian tracts are worth examining, for they reveal a lot about the character of today’s left. The first thing one notices about them is their length. Hayes’s contribution, around 4,500 words long, is the pithiest of the bunch. Coates’s essay is some 15,000 words long. Piketty’s book, a summation of 15 years of research, clocks in at 685 pages. No slouches in the prolixity department, these. And all the words, it should be said, are not badly put: The article, essay, and book are well written—if you accept the authors’ premises.
That may be asking too much. The assumptions on which Piketty, Hayes, and Coates rest their arguments are questionable at best.
Piketty’s claim that the return to capital is always greater than the overall growth of the economy—and that such a relationship, if it exists, is corrosive to democracy—has been critiqued not only by conservative economists but also by liberal ones. Hayes credulously accepts the “scientific consensus” that “human civilization cannot survive in any recognizable form a temperature increase this century more than 2 degrees Celsius.” Coates draws a rather tenuous and offensive equivalence between the black experience in America and the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis.
It is fascinating how the authors instantly distance themselves from their own sweeping visions. Piketty himself refers to the global wealth tax as “a utopian idea” that requires “a very high and no doubt unrealistic level of international cooperation.” After all, “to achieve this goal,” the “nations of the world” would “have to establish a tax schedule applicable to all wealth around the world and then decide how to apportion the revenues.” Perhaps they could spend the money on reparations.
Nevertheless, Piketty says, his global wealth tax is “a worthwhile reference point.” The reader, for his part, is likely to agree with the critic who wrote, “If the proposal is utopian, which is a synonym for futile, then why make it? Why spend an entire chapter on it—unless perhaps to incite the naïve?” This was not National Review talking. It was the left-wing economist James Galbraith, writing in Dissent.
“The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter,” Coates declaims. Yet his essay contains no explicit call for direct payments to the descendants of slaves, which suggests Coates actually agrees reparations are indeed harebrained, wild-eyed, and unserious.
This was a point lost on Juicebox Mafioso Matthew Yglesias, who wrote on Vox.com, “Reparations are Workable and Affordable,” because “we could close the wealth gap between black households and white households by directing the Federal Reserve to print $55 billion a month for 25 months and divide the proceeds evenly among every African American.”
Of course! How could Janet Yellin say no?
What Coates wants instead is for Congress to pass a bill proposed by Representative John Conyers that would establish a commission to study reparations. That is theoretically possible. What follows is not: “We must imagine a new country,” he writes. Later, Coates says that reparations “would mean a revolution of the American consciousness.”
The dichotomy between the modesty of his material desires on the one hand—for a commission to issue a report—and the grandiosity of his intellectual desires on the other—consciousness revolution, dude—is breathtaking. It is also absurd.
So, too, Hayes seems uncomfortable with his analogy between abolitionism and opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. “Before anyone misunderstands my point let me be clear and state the obvious,” he writes early on in his piece. “There is absolutely no conceivable moral comparison between the enslavement of Africans and African Americans and the burning of carbon to power our devices.” In case anyone forgets, he repeats himself toward the end: “The point here is not to associate modern fossil-fuel companies with the moral bankruptcy of the slaveholders of yore, or the politicians who defended slavery with those who defend fossil fuels today.”
So why call the essay “The New Abolitionism”?
Here’s why. Only by inflating the stakes, by intensifying the bombast, can Hayes and company feel part of a moral crusade worthy of their self-righteousness and sanctimony. After all, the world is in a much better place than when Charles Fourier was alive: Human beings are wealthier, healthier, and more equal, slavery and Jim Crow are history, and a high level of energy capture sustains a global civilization of advanced technology.
Yet the impulse that motivated Fourier, the impulse to remake the world according to the subjective preferences of an intellectual, remains.
It is enough to make one think the purpose of utopian arguments is not actually to improve society but to improve the status of intellectuals. “I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced,” writes Coates. Sure he does. “Wrestling publicly with these questions” is how he makes a living.
The return of the utopians, I suspect, is a sign not only of the left’s recent victories but also of its present exhaustion: It is running out of plausible ideas.
Put the juiceboxes down, boys.