By: Marlee Jacocks
Freedom or security? Democracies are constantly forced to confront the tension between these two concepts on behalf of their people. Citizens are called to reflect on which is more important to them. What about in a perfect world? In most classic utopias, the state practices isolationism and strictly follows a set of rules. This can be expected, considering a utopia, in theory, can only exist if everyone follows along, which also relates back to the aspect of security. With this in mind, what role does freedom play in utopian societies?
In the critical essay “Utopia and Its New Enemies,” Crystal Bartolovich recognizes the tension between utopia and freedom in her analysis of Thomas More’s Utopia. Bartolovich argues that “Utopians insist, private property, in all forms, must be abandoned” (49). Many utopian texts support this claim. For example, H. G. Wells, in his novel A Modern Utopia, sets up a utopian society where the World State is “the sole landowner of the earth” and private property does not exist (371). In this case, the abolition of private property is an essential qualification of a utopian society. A tension with freedom is thus created, because private property is often viewed as an essential element for a free man. Bartolovich argues that “a world in which Utopia is not universal—is one in which, from a Utopian perspective, no one can be truly free” (49). Bartolovich’s claim pertains to universal materialism as it relates to education, and that people cannot be free if society is built on privilege instead of equality. However, extending this tension that Bartolovich invokes in her reading of More’s Utopia to the concept of utopian freedom in general highlights a problem: utopia and freedom are mutually exclusive concepts.
I would argue that there is not only less freedom in utopian societies than in non-utopian societies, but that, in fact, freedom and utopia cannot coexist; you cannot have perfection and peace along with freedom. A single sentence from Wells’s A Modern Utopia supports this claim. The modern utopia can only function, “provided he follows the Rule” (374). Herein lies the catch to all utopian societies: as long as every person of the utopia follows the rules that are set in place, then they are free to do as they wish. The number and types of restrictions set in place, however, are limiting to the freedom of individuals.
In A Modern Utopia, the Rule consists of three different categories: “the list of things that qualify, the list of things that must not be done, and the list of things that must be done” (Wells 375). Included in these lists are things like a dress code and what types of jobs certain people can work, as well as the “Rule of Chastity” and the “Woman’s Rule” to name a few. These many regulations are just as imposing, if not more limiting, than the laws and rules established in modern, non-utopian societies. For most in democratic societies, submitting to a dress code every day and in venue violates freedom of expression. A law, such as the “Woman’s Rule,” that calls for women to live their lives with the purpose of serving their husband, is a sacrifice of the right to equality.
In order to better understand the freedoms expected in non-utopian societies, I refer to the philosophy of John Locke. Locke argued that humans possess an inherent right to life, liberty and property. These freedoms are contradicted in many literary utopias. For example, in both A Modern Utopia and Utopia, one’s life does not necessarily belong to themselves, rather their life belongs to the state. Liberty in utopias is limited with the many rules and constraints put in place to keep the society utopian. Private property is nonexistent in utopias where land is communal. Societies such as utopias cannot coexist with freedoms that individuals deserve.
Given the framework Bartolovich calls forth, A Modern Utopia raises the question of just how much freedom can be enjoyed in their society. In comparison to other literary utopias, A Modern Utopia specifically raises questions that force the audience to truly consider our own personal notions of freedom. Whenever freedom is called into question, as More and Wells did, one must consider the sacrifices of freedom that are necessary to exist within a utopian society. Although utopias are often portrayed throughout literature as seemingly perfect and peaceful societies, they often overlook freedom. The question that utopias then force us to consider, is whether or not the sacrifice of freedom is worth it.
Bartolovich, Crystal. “Utopia and Its New Enemies: Intellectuals, Elitism, and the Commonwealth of Learning.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, University of Pennsylvania Press, vol. 13, no. 3, 2013, pp. 33-61.
Wells, H.G. “Modern Utopia.” The Utopian Reader, edited by George Claeys and Lyman Tower Sargent, New York University Press, 2017, pp. 371-378.