A Phalanstery

Charles Fourier (1772 – 1837)

When I was fifteen my friend Simon Poole and I had a mutual art project. We designed a communist community, a huge mega-structure in which the population of the world would live and work. We created a model of a typical living quarter, considered the average day of a person, what he/she would do, what work would consist of, and what would motivate them to participate within a society in which they could never rise above total equality.

I’ll just step over the fact that this might be quite an odd thing for a couple of teenagers to consider, and rather focus on the fact that as original as we thought we were being, a similar idea was in fact considered by the French Communist philosopher Charles Fourier (1772 – 1837).

He called the building a ‘Phalanstery’ – a Phalanstery was a sprawling building which was to house not the population of the world but rather 1600 people. The word is derived from two words, Phalanx (the Greek close-knit military formation) & Monastery.  It consisted of a central building with quieter spaces in it, such as dining rooms, libraries, studies, temple etc., one wing for noisier work: forge, workshops, music rooms, and children’s play areas, and another wing for rooms for meeting outsiders, ball rooms and halls – in order to welcome and entertain the curiosity-seekers, whose entry fees would provide profit. Then there are the sleeping quarters which were to be divided by class. This seems very odd to me given that this was a ‘communist’ concept – but Fourier believed this necessary in order to incentivise work which required more skill or was more unpopular. The only exception to this was he stated that all children irrespective of parent’s class should be housed together.

He believed this was desirable because conventional homesteads promoted segregation, isolated people from one another, and encouraged the prevailing patriarchal social makeup (Fourier coined the word ‘feminism’). He believed that mutual cooperation was the secret to a healthy society; as such he hoped communities like this would become the basic building unit of society at large, as opposed to the nuclear family or the individual. He believed that such communities would truly liberate people to pursue leisure and intellectual pursuits, and encourage people to find work which was actually enjoyable and fulfilling.

Each Phalanstery would self-govern like a city-state. Fourier believed each Phalanstery would be ordered slightly differently, and people could opt into the model which best suited them, as opposed to what we have - a single centralized government from which one cannot opt out.

This idea is interesting, as it attempts to address a few social problems. Power would not be centralised into a political state, and it attempts to address an inherent problem within liberalism – namely rampant individualism. Society is built upon a truly meritocratic foundation, everyone has an equal chance in life, and it addresses the social ill of isolation. In my next article I will look at some examples of people actually attempting to create such communities.