Utopia is described as a society void of pain and poverty. It was sought well before Sir Thomas More coined the word in 1516 from the Greek words ou and topos. Since their combination translates as “to place,” More understood it to be unattainable. It has many names: Datong, the Garden of Eden, Atlantis, and New Jerusalem.
For many, utopia conjures images of the millennial reign of Christ on earth or of Marxists communizing the world, and the apocalyptic war that precedes each. This war is between good and evil in Christianity and between proletarians and capitalists in communism. Victory ends the alienation of Christians from God via sin and materialism and of proletarians from their true selves via the divisions of labor and specialization. These journeys are so similar because secular communism evolved out of Christian millennialism.
Christian millennialism and its influence on communist thought are detailed in Murray Rothbard’s “Karl Marx as Religious Eschatologist.” According to Rothbard, millennialist movements follow a pattern. Men claiming divinity or divine appointment and preaching collective salvation and the coming apocalypse swelled their ranks with the poor by promising them a place in utopia if they believed and followed. They established collectives of conformity and property. As needs were met with distributions from the communal storehouse, labor and production plummeted in these communes. Ultimately, these movements ended when the storehouses emptied.
Millennialism was expanded from small religious communes into a communism of the state by Professor Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He secularized Jesus out of communism by extending Jesus becoming God to mankind becoming God through the acquisition of knowledge. He transformed the state, “the Divine ideal on earth,” as he put it, into a religion that ended the alienation of mankind and God with their unification in what he dubbed Man-God.
Marxism as a Religious Struggle
Modern leaders owe much to Hegel. Presidents Wilson and Nixon used this new religion to impose morality on the people with prohibitions on alcohol and drugs. Hegel’s statement “the State is the march of God through the world,” would make the perfect motto for twentieth-century American foreign policy. The Democrats’ reverent support for Clinton and Obama and the same from Republicans for Reagan and Trump manifest the power of these religious sects in the US.
Hegel’s communism was secularized by Karl Marx. Marx’s communism is a society without God, class, money, personal property, and hierarchy. In it, people contribute according to their abilities in cooperative efforts to produce the goods that society needs and to distribute these according to need. To realize it, proletarians must end their alienation from their true selves in a three-stage process. In the first, capitalist oppressors are overthrown in a violent revolution. In the second, crude communism, a despotic proletarian dictatorship, is established to free the communist ideal that is imprisoned within us by materialism and individualism. The crushing of diversity into uniformity paves the way for the third and final stage, higher communism.
History shows that higher communism never emerges, because proletarian dictators, as Mikhail Bakunin noted, cease being proletarians once they gain power and are loath to give it up. These dictators follow a blueprint. Ignoring the law of markets, they lower prices and raise wages with dictates sold with populist empathy and fiery rhetoric. To cover the unemployment and shortages that result, they nationalize firms and direct them to raise production, not to the level where price caps meet supply, but to where price caps meet demand. They inefficiently boost output by packing factories and production lines with idle proletarians. The losses that accrue from following dictates rather than markets, like at the US Post Office, are papered over with subsidies of inflated printed money. While that is being done, the dictators distribute the largess of the communal storehouses to themselves. The unrest that ultimately rises up is crushed with purges, which consolidates power and stalls the revolution in the dystopia of crude communism.
Since crude communism is dystopia and it and the market system are antonyms, could the market system be the utopia the generations have sought? Ironically, both developed from Christianity. Whereas communism, as discussed above, evolved from collective salvation, the market system sprang forth from ideas that included individual salvation. Individual salvation was a progressive idea in post-Roman Europe. It gave rise to individualism, as it made serfs equal to nobles in the eyes of God. The rise of individualism among the villagers of medieval Italian towns, and their rejection of feudalism, proximity to international trade routes and continuation of Roman property rights together sparked the market system.
The market system, unlike crude communism’s edict-issuing dictator, is a system of voluntary choice and cooperation. In it, buyers and sellers meet in marketplaces to exchange goods. Before the introduction of money, exchangers bartered. As markets got sufficiently complex, barter got ever more inefficient. This necessitated the rise of a new good, money, which emerged from a competition of currencies. Money, by reducing the number of prices to the number of goods sold, dramatically increased the efficiency of exchanges.
The Struggle between State and Marketplace
Because mercantilism and its latter-day cousin, corporatism, developed in and around the market system, history has conflated the three phenomena. Mercantilism and corporatism are systems where individuals seek and gain state protections from the many foreign and domestic competitors in the market system. Licensing, patents, taxes, subsidies, prohibitions, and regulations that cartelize industries are examples of these protections. Under mercantilism, kings and queens granted exclusive rights to the merchants who agreed to collect their taxes. Under corporatism, these protections are purchased from politicians with campaign contributions. Though these protections are sold as safeguards of well-being, they create market barriers and moral hazards, make goods and services scarcer than they would be otherwise, drive prices up demand curves, and widen the margins of incumbents.
The State and the cage of security it provides is the only world we know. We grew up in it. Like Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), we have been institutionalized. We have been duped into depending on this cage and the crumbs the State tosses into it. Could we navigate the alien world of pure liberty? In time, yes. We would come to realize that pursuing our passions, experimenting, discovering, and cooperating in voluntary exchanges of ideas and goods is the just society that the generations have sought. It will not, however, be realized, as it is dystopia for the bureaucrats, politicians, and experts it would unemploy.