Nearly 200 years ago, in 1825, Robert Owen set up his experimental socialist society in New Harmony, Indiana. Owen believed that individuals were largely a product of their environment. Like John Locke a century prior, Owen believed that children were born as a tabula rasa, meaning blank slates which were awaiting input from the surrounding social network of parents, siblings, and others. Owen was convinced that if his socialistic ideal could be put into play in a community and children were born and raised in that environment—never knowing anything otherwise—his dream of a socialistic utopia on earth could be realized. Unfortunately for Owen, things didn’t go quite according to plan and within two years his society in New Harmony was finished; it was a complete failure. Undeterred in his beliefs though, Owen surmised that people weren’t yet ready for his paradise on earth, because they hadn’t been properly educated. Owen found himself in a vicious circle of irony. In order to control the future, he had to create an environment to raise the children, but to create the proper environment to raise the children, he needed to educate the adults. In other words, the key to the future was the present, and the key to the present was getting people to understand the vision for the future.

A similar story surrounds Upton Sinclair, the author of the 1905 novel, The Jungle. Sinclair believed that if he drew public attention to the abhorrent conditions and the mistreatment of the workers in the meatpacking plants of Chicago, that he would have a captive audience for his real purpose in writing: attracting converts to the Socialist party. “Ironically and to Sinclair’s keen disappointment, as he wrote, ‘I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.’ The Socialist vote in America did not increase, nor did the social revolution appear to be any closer. There was only a prodigious commotion about beef and pork.” His overwhelmingly convincing 300+ pages of the trials and tribulations of his fictional protagonist, Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant, made it all the way to the top: the Roosevelt White House. Sinclair’s graphic (and after ensuing federal investigations, deemed accurate) depiction of the meatpacking industry was meant to be a means to an end. Instead it became the end to the means.

Continue Reading on