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Primer: Charles Fourier and the Gravity of the Passions in the Wake of Revolution April 30, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Charles Fourier (1772-1837) was the son of successful cloth merchant whose fortune was lost in the Revolution. Fourier himself was almost executed in the Terror. Like Maistre, his philosophy was a response to the failure of the revolutionary project as well as an inquiry into the universality of reason and the problem of the good society. Fourier’s solution to the problem of the ‘good society’ was indeed novel: the ideal state would be brought about by the supremacy of the natural passions. This was an inversion of the traditional order between the regulative capacity of reason and the sublimation of sentiment. Society was to be regulated, in Fourier’s view, not through reason, but through the harmony of natural passion and action.

In 1808, Fourier published the Theory of the Four Movements and the General Destinies, (Cambridge ed.) which presented his vision of the universal history of humanity, the cosmos, and the prospects for a new order. Fourier presented his study as an inquiry into “the General System of Nature.” Such an inquiry was not only prudent but necessary as true happiness was impossible without a complete understanding of the General System. Fourier believed the first branch of the theory, the material, to be “unveiled” by Newton and Leibniz (3.) Fourier cautioned his reader in the preface , “It should be borne in mind that because the discovery announced is more important than all the scientific work done since the human race began, civilized people should concern themselves with one debate only: whether or not I have really discovered the Theory of the Four Movements.” If the answer was in the affirmative then “all economic and moral theories need to be thrown away” and preparations were to begin for the transition “from social chaos to universal harmony” (4.) Fourier’s universal history had thirty-two stages, all ordained by God, which began in savagery and which led, through the phase of civilization, to the subsequent stage of ‘socialism,’ and finally, Harmony. This highest stage would last for 70,000 years, after which humanity would descend back into the savage state and the world would cease to be.

In much the same way as Newton had discovered the laws of the physical cosmos, so Fourier claimed to have discovered the laws governing society. Fourier’s ideal society was to emerge from the free rein of man’s natural passions. Society had not maintained equilibrium and harmony due to the historical effort to restrain the passions of man. The suppression of the passions was the hallmark of “civilization,” particularly the passions concerning human sexuality. Fourier’s linking of civilization and the repression of sexuality in a sense anticipates Freud.

For Fourier, the passions were those impulses which drove man to action. As Keith Taylor notes in the Political Ideas of Utopian Socialists, “The passions were considered by Fourier to be stimulants of human action and behavior through the natural force of attraction.” True morality was seen as a kind of gravitational pull, in which individuals were compelled to act according to God’s design for the universe (108.) In “civilization” however, man was prevented from acting in harmony with the design of God, due to the artificial morality of extraneous civilization. As importantly, vices and social evils emerged due to the inability of man to act in accordance with his passions.

Fourier was also a staunch critic of the economic structures of modern civilization. Capitalism, by driving down wages, created nothing but misery and want. Constitutionalism and economic liberalism did nothing to aid the people. A new society was necessary but such a society could not be achieved by means of a revolution, as the Terror demonstrated. Much like Rousseau in some of his statements, Fourier preached a return to an uncomplicated natural existence which was to be built anew community by community.

In 1830, Fourier published The New Industrial and Social World in which he advocated the founding of new communities based on the principle of a phalanx. Each phalanx would have between 1700 and 1800 members, with communal meals and housing. In these communities, sexual freedom was to be encouraged, with women given the same rights and privileges as men. Rather than the family, the phalanx would be the object of devotion in these new communities. Fourier, while not believing in the abolition of private property, thought that each individual in the community should be provided with the basic necessities. Each person was also to labor at a craft most suited to their talents. Fourier attracted numerous converts, who established phalanxes in France and America, the most famous of which was Brook Farm in Massachusetts (1841-46).

As Ian Adams and R.W. Dyson note in “Fifty Major Political Thinkers”, “In his day, Fourier was widely regarded as mad,” (119) but his madness did not prevent him from attracting Saint-Simon and Robert Owen as followers. All three thinkers, while violently disagreeing on many things, were united in the conviction that the Revolution and the Terror had destroyed any hope of continuity with the old order. All three abhorred the use of violence as means for establishing a new order. All three, most importantly, believed that in order for a society to be successful there must exist a consonance between the psychology of the individual and the structures of rule and governance.


1. lettrist - May 1, 2009

thirty-two stages? My god…

Mostly what i’ve read about him are these “phalanxes”

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