Charles Fourier: Passion, Civilization, Utopia

Charles Fourier is often treated as an eccentric figure, but this stems from a radical principle he postulated: the law of passionate attraction.

Mar 8, 2023By Moses May-Hobbs, BA Art History w/ Philosophy Concentration
charles fourier passion civilization utopia


Charles Fourier is one of the earliest utopian socialists, proposing in extensive detail a society entitled ‘Harmony’, composed of small communes and organized around strictly voluntary work and relationships. Fourier celebrated human passions and desires as the basic law around which society should orient itself, with gastronomic and sexual pleasures taking pride of place in his scheme.


Part of what is intriguing about Fourier, in contrast with other utopian socialist thinkers, is that he is not only highly attuned to the kinds of drives and impulses that conservatives would tend to stress as inherent to human nature (in a way that socialists often resist) but even seems to speculate about these drives increasing in force and potency in an ideal society.


Thus, lust and competition are placed at the heart of harmonic utopian life, with extravagant outlets for them appearing as jewels in the social crown, rather than as unsightly animal tells, belying the pristine life of the socialist state. For Fourier, no clear tension exists between sensuous passions and harmonic, symmetrical, even mathematically perfect arrangements.


The Attack on Civilization

gigoux charles fourier
Jean Gigoux, Portrait of Charles Fourier, 1835 via Wikimedia Commons


The core of Fourier’s political philosophy is this: passions must be expressed, and they must shape the very rationality and geometry of a socialist state. Closely observing the developments of the French revolution, Fourier saw in prevailing revolutionary ideals a spirit of repression: rules and structures imposed upon the life of passions and drives rather than out of them.


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For Fourier, Jacobin rationality presented no hope of harmony (the word which would become Fourier’s shorthand for his utopian scheme), or of the order it proposed to introduce to social relations. At the same time as the revolution’s repressive and ascetic strictures went too far, in Fourier’s estimation, its reconfiguration of civilization and labor did not go far enough. Fourier, in contrast with socialist contemporaries like Robert Owen and Henri de Saint-Simon, approached work and civilization both with radical doubt.


What results, in Fourier’s constructive project, is not at all fluid or amorphous in its structure; despite its rejection of Jacobin rationality it is anything but irrational. Fourier’s utopian society does not abandon an ideal that is symmetrical, regulated, taxonomized, and above all planned. Indeed, Fourier’s avowed motivation for theorizing the phalanstery is the sight of Paris and its regimented architectural order.


The idea of the phalanstery, however, with all its rigid numerical constraints and physical specifications, is intended as a direct mathematical and architectural consequence of humans and their (irrational) drives. Ever fond of taxonomies and numbered sets, Fourier identified sixteen possible kinds of society, of which ‘civilization’, the shorthand by which Fourier describes the societies he saw around him in Europe, and particularly in his native France, is only one.


Fourier phalanstery
Early 19th century sketch of a phalanstery, artist unknown, via Wikimedia Commons


Civilization is the object of sustained critique throughout Fourier’s writings, with its defects serving to undermine both society as Fourier found it and the proposals of several contemporary utopians. Fourier leaves room for impulses often excluded in socialist visions of an ideal society.


Commerce, in particular, draws Fourier’s attention as central to the generation and recapitulation of poverty in existing civilization, but he explicitly makes room for various kinds of commercial activity in his utopia, treating the impulses to buy and sell alongside other basic passions and drives. The structuring of society around ‘passionate attraction’ (that is, people’s instinctive desires and drives, with respect to how they spend their time and organize their relationships) is what distinguishes Fourier’s utopia both from fellow socialist theorists and from civilization.


Civilization, for Fourier, was (and we can presume he would have thought no better of the contemporary world) not just circumstantially flawed, but essentially cruel, numbing, and repressive. Indeed, although Fourier demonstrates an awareness of the brutal conditions under which his contemporaries labored, he is at pains to highlight that even in the absence of industrial capitalism’s worst excesses, civilization would remain woefully ill-tailored to the drives and desires of its citizens.


Life in civilization is grueling and ruinous to health in ways Fourier saw as intimately bound up with material and social demands that are too fundamental to incrementally alter. Chiefly, Fourier wanted to demonstrate that even if some of the poverty and exploitation endemic to the lives of the industrial and agrarian working classes were to be alleviated, the psychological suffering and repression engendered by working and married life would continue to make life in civilization stunted and dismal.


Work, Selfishness, and Liberation

charles fourier portrait
Élisée Reclus, Drawing of Charles Fourier, c. 1860 via Wikimedia Commons


Fourier begins from a deep-rooted suspicion towards work, of almost all kinds in existing civilizations. Strongly rejecting any form or derivative of the protestant work ethic (and in particular the tendency he notes in other early socialists towards venerating the suffering and sacrifice of hard labor), Fourier devotes much time and thought to elaborating the necessary psychological and material preconditions for willing and productive work in Harmony.


Indeed, the clearest line separating Fourier from the likes of Rousseau, Robert Owen, or Henri de Saint-Simon, is the former’s refusal to base his utopia upon sacrifice or self-denial, at the very same time as he shares these other thinkers’ frustrations with the selfishness of existing social and economic life.


For Fourier, the state of existing civilizations (particularly what he saw as the woeful condition of almost the entire population in his industrializing France of the early nineteenth century) was proof enough that the self-interested principles of capitalist competition did not organically produce harmony. Certainly, the principle guiding Fourier’s vision is no invisible hand. However, in contrast with figures like Rousseau, for whom forms of virtuous self-denial and non-competition were an inescapable part of theorizing utopia, Fourier sees instinctive drives (and he does, without doubt, include self-interest and competition among these) can harmonize with one another, given the right framework.


The phalanx, with its detailed geometric construction and complex combinatorial patterns, is an attempt to provide exactly this: a scheme in which self-denial and repression are not prerequisite for the proliferation of generosity, harmony, and equality. The ideal ‘Harmonian’, it turns out, can be perfectly hedonistic without imperiling the prosperity and collectivism of the larger social organism. In other words, for all his flights of fancy, and apparently giddy utopian speculation, what Fourier’s theories are aiming at is a remarkably robust society, one that is not vulnerable to self-interest or passionate instincts.


gustave courbet peasants
Gustave Courbet, Peasants from Flagey back from the Fair, 1850 via Wikimedia Commons


If Fourier’s utopia is robust because it accounts for all kinds of passionate desire, it appears vulnerable because it struggles to withstand the absence of desire: what if nobody wants to do something that needs to be done? Answering this question, especially with regards to undesirable work of various kinds, is central to Fourier’s elaborate system of the ‘working series’.


In order to separate his visions of work in Harmony absolutely from the conditions of existing civilization, Fourier emphasized that in place of all sacrifice or obligatory (even if virtuous) drudgery, his ideal society would be constructed around ‘attractive labor’. In short, nobody would end up doing work they hated or found oppressive, indeed nobody would do just one thing for any substantial stretch of time, and nobody would be compelled to engage in forms of work that did not agree with them and their desires.


Work, Fourier maintained, would still get done because it would either naturally (once the shackles of obligation and the threat of starvation were taken away) or artificially (by means of additional rewards and excellent, even beautiful working conditions) become attractive to almost all citizens of the phalanstery.


The Phalanstery and the Working Series

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John Jabez Edwin Mayal, Portrait of Karl Marx, c. 1875 via Wikimedia Commons


The phalanstery, with its 1,620 inhabitants, forms the basic unit of Fourier’s utopia. Throughout his work, these social units are planned in minute detail, from their architectural form to their facilities, and from the protocols allowing people to move between them to the precise numbers involved in each part of their management.


Separate, but continually in contact and mutual exchange with one another, the phalansteries are envisaged as efficient and spatially compact communes, oriented primarily towards agricultural production. In order, however, to ensure that Harmony escapes the fetters of repressive civilization, Fourier proposes that the labor involved in this production is not just voluntary, but also optimized to maximize pleasure and health, while minimizing boredom and frustration.


Fourier proposes that workers perform a range of tasks, both within a single day and between days, spending no more than two hours at a time on any given task, and always performing a task well-suited to one’s specific passions. Production would be spurred on by competitive (but ever friendly) working bands. Each day, he imagines, would end with the discussion and selection of work for the following day. Any particularly dangerous work, involving chemicals or heavy industry, Fourier insists will be spread across as many people as possible, rather than destroying the health of those trapped doing it for their entire working lives.


In an effort to complete his vision while maintaining the importance of volition and passion, Fourier palms off much of the most unappealing work on groups of children, in many of whom he identifies a genuine passion for filth, and a corresponding passionate willingness to perform tasks like sewer maintenance.


lumiere film versions
Lumière Brothers, Stills from La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon, 1895 via Wikimedia Commons


All of this rests atop what Fourier calls the ‘social minimum’, a system which amounts – more or less – to universal basic income. Always attentive to psychology, at least as much as to the material conditions of work, Fourier proposed that having this fallback, and thereby not being compelled to work by necessity or hunger would allow people to pursue work for pleasure.


If nobody in Harmony was made to work, the last traces of civilization’s brutal drudgery could fade away: people would discover their passionate attraction to various tasks, and engage in them with a vigor unattainable in even the most viciously disciplined factory.


Fourier’s vision of work is a radical one even by the standards of his socialist contemporaries and inheritors. As Jonathan Beecher and Richard Bienvenu highlight in their introduction to Fourier’s collected works, Marx and Engels would later start from a Fourierist vision of happy, voluntary, and above all eclectic labor, only to later abandon it as unworkably inefficient.


Here, as in so many areas of Fourier’s thought, we see a glimpse of a utopia which extends its hopes beyond horizons which even wildly different ideologies tend to share. Fourier envisions a meticulously structured and efficient society without ever contravening what he understands to be people’s basic drives and passions. For Fourier, the extravagant geometry of the phalanstery is only the logical conclusion of the spectrum of human passions.

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By Moses May-HobbsBA Art History w/ Philosophy ConcentrationMoses May-Hobbs is a recent graduate of Cambridge University. His writing focuses on aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and film criticism. He is currently working as a contributing writer and editor, while writing in his spare time on the philosophy of language, perception, and affect.