Engineers of Utopia

Knowledge, Labor and Intentional Communities in the Americas of the “Second Slavery”

Claudia Roesch

Intentional communities in the Americas were laboratories of knowledge production. Religious separatists, reform educators and social reformers all established communities in the early 19th century, where they experimented with new forms of working and living. Through these experimental settlements, they wanted to find answers to the big questions of the 19th century – the labor question, the capitalism question, the slavery question, the population question, the women’s question etc. My project for my Habilitationsschrift investigates in a history of knowledge approach intentional communities that adopted the “social system” of British factory owner and reformer Robert Owen – a holistic system to reorganize work relations and living arrangements for workers. In the 1820s Americas, elites, government officials, factory owners, reform educators, plantation owners and abolitionists alike were inspired by Owen’s system to reduce the evils of mechanization such as workers’ poverty, child labor, crime and disease while increasing profits at the same time.

Owen and his followers suggested three fixes to the population problem that they saw as the root cause of poverty: abolishing private property and sharing profits, mechanizing agriculture, and circulating birth control information. The last two solutions required knowledge in natural sciences and engineering that often did not yet exist. Focusing on the importance of engineering and natural science in Owen’s system to reorganize labor and society, my project. therefore, investigates the instances of natural science knowledge projection in Owenite communities in the Americas in a praxeological approach. It uses case studies from the Southern and Northern United States as well as the Caribbean where reformers tested out Owen’s social system in a slave-based economy and thus connects the Utopian Studies to the concept of the “Second Slavery”. It also asks about the importance of colonialism for settlers as they used networks and infrastructures of empire to travel and circulate their pamphlets. My investigation begins with the establishment of Owen’s social system in the Scottish factory town of New Lanark since 1800 and ends with the sale of the last Owenite settlement Mound Bayou in 1914.