Apr 072014


Today is the birthday (1772) of François Marie Charles Fourier, generally referred to as Charles, radical (for his day) social theorist and utopian socialist. His ideas had a profound impact on social theory in the early 19th century, among other things being foundational to much of what Karl Marx wrote later about the ills of industrial society.  But he was also a trifle loony and ended up being largely forgotten until the late 20th century.  Fourier’s views inspired the founding of the community of Utopia, Ohio, La Reunion near present-day Dallas, Texas, the North American Phalanx in Red Bank, New Jersey, Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts (where Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the founders), the Community Place and Sodus Bay Phalanx in New York State, and several other communities in the United States.

Fourier was born in Besançon, capital and principal city of the Franche-Comté region in eastern France. He was the son of a small businessman, but was more interested in architecture than in his father’s line of work. He wanted to become an engineer, but the local military engineering school where he might have trained accepted only sons of noblemen. Fourier later said he was grateful that he did not pursue engineering, because it would have consumed too much of his time and taken away from his true desire to help humanity.

When his father died in 1781, Fourier received 40% of his father’s estate, valued at more than 200,000 francs. This inheritance enabled Fourier to travel throughout Europe at his leisure. In 1791 he moved from Besançon to Lyon, where he was employed by a merchant. Fourier’s travels also brought him to Paris, where he worked as the head of the Office of Statistics for a few months. Not satisfied with making journeys on behalf of others for their commercial benefit and desiring to seek knowledge in everything he could, Fourier often changed business firms and residences in order to explore and experience new things. From 1791 to 1816 (the years of revolution and the Napoleonic wars) Fourier was employed in Paris, Rouen, Lyon, Marseille, and Bordeaux. As a traveling salesman and correspondence clerk, his time for research and writing was limited. He complained of “serving the knavery of merchants” and the stupefaction of “deceitful and degrading duties.” His first book was published in 1808 and eventually he became a full time writer.

Fourier declared that concern and cooperation were the secrets of social success. He believed that a society that cooperated would see an immense improvement in its productivity levels. Workers should be recompensed for their labors according to their contribution (with odious, but necessary, toil being rewarded more than pleasing work). Fourier envisaged such cooperation occurring in communities he called “phalanxes,” based on large planned edifices called Phalanstères or “grand hotels.” These buildings were four-level apartment complexes where the richest had the uppermost apartments and the poorest lived on the ground floor. Wealth was to be determined by one’s job, and jobs were assigned based on the interests and desires of the individual. Fourier considered trade, presumably based on experience, to be the “source of all evil.”

Fourier characterized poverty (not inequality) as the principal cause of disorder in society, and he proposed to eradicate it by sufficiently high wages and by a “decent minimum” for those who were not able to work. Fourier used the word “civilization” in a negative sense and as such his contempt for the respectable thinkers and ideologies of his age was so intense that he always used the terms “philosopher” and “civilization” in a pejorative sense. Fourier´s attack on civilization went completely against the mainstream of social criticism of his day.

Here is where his theories start to go off the rails a little, but with some solid ideas at the core. He believed that there were twelve common passions which resulted in 810 types of character. Hence the ideal phalanx would have exactly 1620 people (male and female of each character type). He imagined that one day there would be six million of these phalanxes, loosely ruled by a world “omniarch,” or (later) a World Congress of Phalanxes, and this would be the new world order.

He had a touching concern for the sexually rejected; jilted suitors would be led away by a corps of fairies who would soon cure them of their lovesickness, and visitors could consult the card-index of personality types for suitable partners for casual sex. He also defended homosexuality as perfectly normal for some people. Anarchist Hakim Bey says of Fourier’s ideas: “In Fourier’s system of Harmony all creative activity including industry, craft, agriculture, etc. will arise from liberated passion — this is the famous theory of “attractive labor.” Fourier sexualizes work itself — the life of the Phalanstery is a continual orgy of intense feeling, intellection, & activity, a society of lovers & wild enthusiasts.” A perfect summation I think of his core concepts, and ones I wholeheartedly approve of.

Fourier was also a supporter of women’s rights in a time when women were strictly subjugated. He believed that all important jobs should be open to women on the basis of skill and aptitude rather than closed on account of gender. He spoke of women as individuals, not as half a human couple. Fourier saw that traditional marriage, as he saw it in his day, could  hurt woman’s rights as human beings and thus he never married. Writing well over a century before the so-called sexual revolution, Fourier believed that both men and women have a wide range of sexual needs and preferences which may change throughout their lives, including same-sex sexuality and androgénité. He argued that all sexual expressions should be enjoyed as long as people are not abused, and that “affirming one’s difference” can actually enhance social integration.

Fourier’s concern was to liberate every human individual, man, woman, and child, in two ways: education and the liberation of human passion. On education, he felt that “civilized” parents and teachers saw children as little slackers to be disciplined and trained into “civilized” behavior. He believed that this way of thinking was cripplingly wrong both for children and for society as a whole. He thought that children as early as ages two and three were very industrious (and could actually be put to work as long as it was enjoyable). He listed the dominant tastes in all children to include, but not limited to:

Rummaging or the inclination to handle everything, examine everything, look through everything, to constantly change activities.

Industrial commotion; a taste for noisy activities.

Aping or imitative mania.

Industrial miniature, a taste for small things.

Progressive attraction of the weak toward the strong.

Fourier was deeply disturbed by the disorder of his time and wanted to stabilize the course of events which surrounded him. Fourier saw his fellow human beings living in a world full of strife, chaos, and disorder. As such Fourier is best remembered for his writings on a new world order based on unity of action and harmonious collaboration. He is also known for certain, occasionally whacky, apocalyptic pronouncements, such as that the seas would lose their salinity and turn to lemonade, and that in the future phase of Perfect Harmony the North Pole would be milder than the Mediterranean.

The influence of Fourier’s ideas in French politics was carried forward into the 1848 Revolution and the Paris Commune by followers such as Victor Considérant. Numerous references to Fourier’s ideas appear, negatively, in Dostoevsky’s political novel The Possessed first published in 1872. In it Fourierism is used by the revolutionary faithful as something of an insult to their peers, and those within the circle are quick to defend themselves from being labeled a Fourierist.

Fourier’s ideas also took root in the United States, with his followers starting phalanxes throughout the country, including one of the most famous, Utopia, Ohio. The town lasted a mere 3 years as a phalanx and was then taken over by a succession of intentional communities.  It is now mostly deserted although a few people still live there. Here’s the subterranean chapel.


Remnants of phalanx buildings still stand in various parts of the country. This is the main building of the New American Phalanx as it was in the 1970’s.  I believe it is gone now.


Many studies have been written on the failure of these communities, coming to various conclusions.  The nineteenth century saw the rise of a great many utopian and millenarian philosophies which led to the creation of communes of one sort or another.  Most of them quickly failed because of general disagreement among the members concerning how to manage daily life and concerning the interpretation of their founders’ visions.  In Fourier’s case I suspect the lunatic elements of his theories interfered with their arguably solid foundations, and undermined the pragmatics of daily living.  No doubt also a wide variety of fringe elements in society were attracted to Fourier’s philosophy. Utopia, Ohio failed after 8 years because the members could not agree on issues of women’s rights and abolition, as well as disagreement among members concerning the role that religion should play in the community.

In the mid-20th century, Fourier’s influence began to rise again among left wing and radical writers reappraising socialist ideas outside the Marxist mainstream. After the Surrealists had broken with the French Communist Party, for example, André Breton returned to Fourier and wrote “Ode à Charles Fourier” in 1947.  Writers of the post-left anarchy movement, among others, have praised Fourier’s work. Bob Black in The Abolition of Work advocates Fourier´s idea of attractive work as a solution to his own criticisms of work conditions in contemporary society. Hakim Bey remarked that Fourier “lived at the same time as De Sade & Blake, & deserves to be remembered as their equal or even superior. Those other two apostles of freedom & desire had no political disciples, but in the middle of the 19th century literally hundreds of communes (phalansteries) were founded on fourierist principles.”  I love Fourier’s work.  I’ll take whackos over normal people every day of the week and twice on Sundays.

I thought about a recipe for lemonade as an homage to Fourier’s vision of future oceans.  But that seems so lame.  I mean – make a simple syrup of sugar and water, bung in some fresh squeezed lemon juice and top with water.  Big whoop. Actually Fourier may be referring to a much more interesting drink, aigre de cèdre, which was popular in Paris in his day.  Here is a clipping describing it (click to enlarge):


I don’t have the stamina right now to translate this, but the gist is that aigre de cèdre is made with citrons, not lemons, sweetened with honey, and enhanced with a variety of ingredients from mulberry juice to bergamot essence.

Anyway, I am going to go with a recipe for mirlitons, a pastry that was invented in, and is still common in, Rouen but rarely found elsewhere (to my knowledge).  Fourier spends quite a bit of time talking about his theories on food, which he called gastrosophy, and mirlitons have a prominent place in his discussions.  I’ll spare you his endless, and only semi-coherent, thoughts in this sphere.  Trust me, you don’t need to know his theories about the part mirlitons would play in feuds between members of phalanxes, and other notions.  Here’s a recipe instead.

Mirlitons come in a few different varieties, but basically they are puff pastry shells filled with an almond custard.  They can come in a pie size, but traditionally they are individual bites the size of a cupcake.  Just to avoid confusion, there are other pastries found in other parts of France that are quite different from the ones found in Rouen, which are the ones Fourier refers to. Mirliton is an old French word that is somewhat akin to “thingamabob.” The word is also used as an alternate to chayote (a vining vegetable), a Paris cabaret, a type of flute, and a style of military shako. You will need tartlet pans, fluted if possible, and a pastry wheel.


Mirlitons de Rouen


1 8 oz/230g puff pastry sheet
3 ½ ozs/100 g ground almonds
3 ½ ozs/100 g caster sugar
2 eggs
vanilla essence or orange flower water
7 ozs/ 200 g thick jam or fruit butter
5 tbsps thick cream
flaked almonds to decorate


Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C.

Cut out circles of the pastry with a pastry wheel so as to give the mirlitons a decorative edge, and tuck them into greased tartlet molds.

Put a teaspoon of jam or fruit butter into each tartlet shell.

In a mixing bowl combine the eggs, sugar, and ground almonds. Whisk well and then add the cream and stir to incorporate it

Pour the egg mixture into each tartlet shell so that they are about ¾ full (the mixture will rise in baking).

Decorate with flaked almonds and bake for about 20 minutes or until golden.

Serve warm or cold.

Yield: 12-14