Charles Fourier’s utopian socialism introduces many arguments and ideas now central to socialist thought. Notorious among Fourier’s utopian prescriptions are those concerning love and sex. In The New Amorous World, Charles Fourier began to outline both the problems with romantic and sexual relationships in civilization: how many people should be in an ideal society to achieve perfect representation of all possible passions? Sexual relationships form the very basis for the size of the phalanstery: the basic social unit of Fourier’s utopia. In this article, we will explore how the “Harmonians”, the imagined citizens of the phalanstery, would organize their sexual and love lives.
Charles Fourier on Phalanstery: The Ideal Number of Passions
Working up from the 12 passions he identified as occurring in people, Charles Fourier began calculating how many people each community would have to include before it was likely that all combinations of passions would be represented. Though Fourier did not imagine one’s passions to be static throughout one’s life, he treats them throughout his work as relatively stable, defining the pleasures one seeks as the tasks one will not only excel in, but be drawn toward.
The number he reached was 810, as the minimum number of people at which – in all likelihood – all ‘types’ would be represented. The phalanstery needs to consists of 1,620 “Harmonians”, to allow each of these types (though Fourier does not ignore or deride homosexuality) to find partners with corresponding tastes and passions.
Love and eros, then, are woven into the very architectural fabric of Fourier’s utopia, taken account of in unflinching detail where his socialist peers were content to gloss over their importance. Fourier treats people’s inner lives as at least as important as their wages and working conditions, and attempts to plausibly systematize sex and love, providing a veritable wealth of intimate relationships for every citizen of his utopia.
The Sexual Minimum
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Charles Fourier proposed what he called the ‘sexual minimum’ as a crucial part of his utopia. A direct corollary to his ‘social minimum’, which would guarantee all citizens of Harmony an income sufficient to live on irrespective of whether they elected to work at all, the sexual minimum imagined all Harmonians having access to regular intimacy and sexual contact, according to their desires, besides their day-to-day romantic and erotic relationships.
The means Charles Fourier proposed to meet this demand are characteristically detailed and extensive in their articulation, taking up many pages of Fourier’s substantial The New Amorous World. Involving a benevolent and omnivorous erotic elite, as well as special cohorts of the young and beautiful to encourage romantic competition, Fourier’s scheme reads at times as both fanciful and unnerving. Commendably open to a range of sexualities, and determined to dismantle the very category of ‘perversion’, Fourier’s is a thoroughly planned sexual utopia.
At the core of the idea of the sexual minimum, as elsewhere in Fourier’s theory, is the desperate desire to avoid compelling people to do that which they do not desire. This of course, sounds like something of a problem for any version of the world where everyone gets to have sex precisely as much as they wish. Echoes of Peterson’s now infamous ‘enforced monogamy’ and incel manifestos start to loom.
While volition, and therefore consent, is essential to almost all Fourier’s utopian thinking, many of the same objections still apply. On one hand, Fourier’s proposals make us think hard about whether sex can be considered as a basic need at all, in the same sense as – say – food. On the other hand, we have to ask whether strictly voluntary relationships could really ever leave nobody lonely.
As with Fourier’s UBI-like social minimum, the sexual minimum seeks not only to satisfy people’s basic needs, but also to pave the way for the kinds of creative, voluntary activities that necessity suppresses.
At the core of Fourier’s psychology, which is in turn integral to his political project, is the belief that people simply don’t enjoy what they have to do. Furthermore, necessity occludes more rewarding and varied practices. So, in the world of romantic relationships, Charles Fourier not only imagines citizens being liberated from the need to pursue and cement a marriage in order to fulfil their sexual desires, but he also envisions new and exciting kinds of romantic relationships flourishing in the space left by the abolishment of that necessity.
With sex taken care of, or at least available to those who want it as and when they want it, Fourier envisages kinds of love that extend far beyond the erotic, and which explore all the complex and fruitful interactions of different passions and passional types.
Charles Fourier on Marriage and Monogamy
One consequence of this liberation from the requirements of marriage, and something Charles Fourier saw as a necessary precondition for Harmony’s erotic flourishing, is the disappearance of monogamy. Fourier believed that in love, as well as work, diversity and frequent changes were necessary to optimize pleasure and fulfillment.
Here, however, the line between scheme and fantasy is blurred. Unlike with the structure of the working day, it doesn’t seem that Charles Fourier is proposing that Harmonians will be compelled to be non-monogamous, although we might expect the institution of marriage to be abolished, but he is expecting a new and different universal behaviour with respect to sex.
This theme crops up more than a few times in Fourier’s utopian writings, and isn’t a problem in its own right – we can of course expect that the wholesale transformation of society will modify patterns of behavior – but it works as something of a crutch for a utopian vision which wants to exclude all compulsion and repression.
In short, Fourier seems to sometimes wish away desires or impulses that find no place in his vision of harmony by claiming that unlike the desires branded ‘perversions’ in existing societies, desires for things like monogamous marriage are really artificial, and will readily vanish from the psychological makeup of humans.
In the case of monogamy, Fourier endeavors to demonstrate that not only is marriage an unnatural thing to desire (and therefore not something that will have to be repressed), but that people already pursue amorous variety.
Prefiguring Marx and Engels critique of marriage as an oppressive institution, Fourier highlights castigates the monogamous nuclear family as not only integral to the subjugation of women, but also as wholly unsuited to the actual operation of desire. Once again attempting to salvage those things which civilization represses as perversions, Fourier maintains that a varied and expansive taste in romantic and sexual partners, throughout life, is not only acceptable but more or less ubiquitous. This is highlighted by the pervasiveness of infidelity and its tacit acceptability in present society,
Fourier paints a picture of marriage as an institution that constrains the passions uncomfortably to a single person, and that represses the more basic impulse to create complex and distinctive amorous relationships, distinguished from one another not only in participants but in kind and structure.
Where the ubiquitous extramarital affairs parodied in Fourier’s now-infamous taxonomy of cuckoldry (elaborating a startling 72 kinds) breed guilt and dissatisfaction, Harmony’s romantic relationships – liberated from the social need to marry – could become aesthetic exercises, too. More important even than this, for Fourier, is the honesty that a new amorous culture could instantiate. Fourier is remarkably permissive, leaving almost nothing off the table in terms of acceptable behavior and relationships in his utopia, but deceit he associates strictly with the civilization he intends to leave behind.
The Passional Types
Fourier’s ‘law of passionate attraction’ tethers his theories on love and sex to his other ideas concerning work and general social organizations. He identifies twelve passions as composing the tastes of all individuals, through a variety or combinations. These passions are broken down into sensual passions, affective passions, and “mechanizing passions” as follows:
“…the tendency to harmonize the five sensual passions – 1. taste, 2. touch, 3. sight, 4. hearing, 5. Smell – with the four affective passions-6. friendship, 7. ambition, 8. love, 9. paternity. This harmony takes place through the medium of three little-known and abused passions which I shall call 10. the Cabalist, 11. the Butterfly, 12. the Composite. Their function is to establish the harmony of the passions in their internal and their external action.”
Fourier, Selected Texts, 1971
People, Fourier thought, could have anywhere from just one of these to all of them as ruling passions, with ‘monogynes’ being most common and so-called ‘omnigynes’ extremely rare. One’s passional type dictated working predilections, hobbies, and taste in other people. For example, those with taste as a ruling passion might work primarily with food production and preparation (though still in a variety of roles, never spending too long on any single task) but they might also find it easier to form relationships with people who shared their passionate tendencies, or build relationships primarily around gustatory pleasure.
Fourier did not, however, only envisage people developing relationships with those who shared their passional type. Rather, his ideal – as well as the success of the sexual minimum – hinged upon the expansive tastes of those with many ruling passions. These individuals, clearly admired by Fourier simply for their impeccable hedonistic credentials, compose in large part one of the very specific groups envisaged by him: the ‘bacchantes’. The group constitutes a kind of erotic elite, whose varied sexual appetites, Fourier imagined, would fill in any gaps left by the more limited desires of others, and ensure the accessibility of intimacy for everyone.
In yet another parallel with his broader political theories, Fourier saw the proliferation of erotic competition as a good thing, within certain limits and safety nets. He imagines armies competing for the affection of beautiful virgins called ‘vestals’, the losers soothed by bacchantes. The vision is, as with so much of Fourier, fantastical and oddly numerical – an extremely orderly circus. Underneath, however, there are firm principles elaborated to their most detailed conclusions.
The geometric patterns generated from unrestrained desire, Fourier wants to show us, are perhaps outlandish, scandalous, and astoundingly varied, but they are also regular and calculable. Above all, they are not beyond the reaches of political theory, or of imagination. There is nothing unserious or tangential, as the Marxist rehabilitation of parts of Fourier has often wanted to say, about Harmony’s amorous life, or the webs of friendship Fourier envisages between the members of competing groups of pear-pickers. These details are, for Fourier, all absolutely necessary effects of his most basic principles: the flourishes of a vast human quadrille, motivated and regulated by a myriad of passionate combinations.