"Excavating" American Conservative Utopias
Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 5:41AM
Quentin in archaeology, politics

On January 10th, 2013, conservative radio and former TV talk-show host Glenn Beck announced his intention to construct a place called  “Independence, USA”, equal parts residential community, media center, and amusement park.  Beck spent most of his show providing a tour of this space, complete with digital maps and his own unique brand of commentary.  Independence, USA's goal, as Beck articulated, was to create a space which would instill his ideas about American values, and put those values into practice.  Beck’s eclectic persona has always involved combining the highly moralized conservative discourses and symbols with broadcast entertainment. This segment was no exception, providing a whirlwind tour of this hypothetical place, which would simultaneously be a living community of houses and businesses, and a beacon to the rest of the world, to “show you the truth of the ideas and ideals that created this country.”

What Beck articulated was a kind of American conservative utopia, and in that, he is not alone.  Independence, USA is one of several recently proposed Utopian plans that are constructed based on conservative political principles.  Though derived from the book of the same name by the 17th century political philosopher Sir Thomas More, the term Utopia (ironically meaning “no place”) has came to encompass a wide range of idealized places in which political ideals can be implemented, and real built environments intended to enact those ideals.  They are a kind of spatial experiment, or what geographer David Harvey calls “spatial play” (Harvey 2000), both in their imaginary and real forms--a kind of imaginative negotiation of the possibilities of space to impact human society.  At the same time, because they are created by human beings who are already culturally embedded, they draw on an interesting array of pre-existing moral sentiments, policy initiatives, institutional and social relations, and symbolic formations, and they can thus be “excavated” to understand those processes.  There is a wide range of scholarship on the archaeology and history of Utopian settlements, but it has been historically true that most Utopian communities are derived from left-wing or socialist principles.  This is why the recent raft of conservative Utopias is such an interesting phenomenon, and these plans have received a great deal of media attention in recent weeks, arousing equal parts curiosity, scorn, and dismissal.  

Beck’s “Independence, USA” provides a good starting point.  His entertaining tour through Independence, USA was largely focused on the spectacle of the space, with less specificity about actually living there.  The spatial arrangement of Independence is essentially urban, built around a central lake.  The settlement is modular, and in describing each area, Beck expounded on its symbolic function in the settlement, with appeals to generalized metaphors of neighborhoods as communities, conflation of neoclassical economic principles with individual actions and ideas, and an oppositional politics to media, educational, and government figures.  Not surprisingly, given Beck’s skill as a media figure, much of the explicit description was focused on areas of tourism and entertainment rather than any kind permanent settlement. An audio-visual IMAX-like entertainment complex would allow visitors to immerse themselves in important US historical events (Beck's example was "cowboys versus indians").  Likewise, an archive located under the center-island in the settlement would be a repository of conservative knowledge (in Beck’s words, "the things, ideas, books, and papers that tell the truth") where families could bring their college age children over the summer to be "deprogrammed", presumably from college professors, that most favorite conservative villain.

Glenn Beck and Independence, USA

Beck’s descriptions of habitation areas were more unusual.  The housing neighborhoods he described were essentially suburban in character, with family houses in rows along streets.  However, Beck argued that housing in Indendence, USA would be wealth-mixed, putting rich families and poor families adjacent to each other "to break the class barriers."  Wealth-mixed housing was largely invented by Labour governments in Britain in the 1960s as a way to create understanding and social harmony in public Council estates.  This project was abandoned when these estates were privatized by Conservative and New labour governments through "right to buy" programs in the 1980s and 90s (Jones 2011:  34-35). Beck's other transformation of the suburban form is perhaps even more radical.  The streets in Independence, USA's housing neighborhoods would be grassy parks, rather than pavement, and cars would be banned.  Beck drew on metaphors of suburban community life in advocating for this rather striking spatiality, arguing that it would foster greater community interaction among residents, and keep families from isolating themselves in their back yards.  These types of social engineering programs are not dissimilar to some of the more radical socialist town and residential plans of the 20th century, in which interaction was encouraged through the expansion of public spaces and the reduction of private ones (Hatherley 2008).  Thus, despite his commitment to anti-state libertarian economic principles, and the metaphors of freedom and individualism that frequently align with them, the housing neighborhoods of Beck's independence would not be out of place in the most left-leaning and radical urban plans of the 20th century. The Daily Show subsequently made great hay out of these tensions between individual freedom and social control in Beck's Utopia.

Aside from discussing this housing, Beck was circumspect about describing the mundane issues of day-to-day living in Independence, USA. Beck did not say where this community might be built, or how many people it might be able to support. He described "self-sufficient" and "local" food production in an area called "the ranch", but equally stated that one of his interns had accidentally drawn wind towers on his digital map as a joke.  Archaeologists have long known that urbanization comes with a whole host of ecological and epidemiological problems that dramatically impact human health (Cohen 1998).  These kinds of mundane questions are largely unspecified in Beck's plan.  

Likewise, it is not clear how Independence, USA would address tensions between residents individual goals and community ideals, a common problem in utopian settlements (Tarlow 2002).  Beck did not describe how one might become a resident of Independence, USA, or what the relationship between residents and tourists might be, but given the highly politicized nature of Beck's discourses, and the antagonistic relationship to various mentioned conservative enemies (Beck indicated that politicians and journalists could also come to the archive to learn the error of their ways), it is not unreasonable to assume that there might be some rather strict criteria for admittance as either a resident or a tourist, though none were mentioned.  

However, such questions are more directly taken up by the planners of another recent conservative Utopia, known as The Citadel, proposed for construction in Northern Idaho. In describing the Citadel's goals, its website suggests that it would be "a small planned community of 3,500 - 7,000 families of patriotic Americans who voluntarily choose to live together in accordance with Thomas Jefferson's ideal of Rightful Liberty", a concept of individual freedom rather narrowly plucked from Jefferson's complex philosophical and political thought.  The layout of this community is also circular, but where Independence, USA's design is bifurcated between the spectacle of the tourist and a generalized suburbia, the Citadel's spatial organization is militaristic and defensive.  The website map (see below) of the structure shows walls, gates, towers, and other defensive structures.  An accompanying list of "Features" to be housed in the Citadel maintains the emphasis on defense, including a command & control center, and an airstrip/helipad.  

Artists' conception of conservative utopia known as "The Citadel". Image Source: http://www.iiicitadel.com/about.htmlThe Citadel's website maintains an oppositional rhetoric, suggesting that "Marxists, socialists, liberals, and establishment republicans may find that living within our Citadel Community is incompatible with their existing ideology and preferred lifestyles."  Every resident must go through an exhaustive application process, pay a series of fees, and agree to the Civil Patriot Agreement, much of which relates to mandatory gun ownership and regular display of firearms ability. Adherence to these principles provides the cohesive logic for the settlement. 

Funding for the Citadel, and the bedrock of its economy will come from a weapons factory.  The website states that "all profits generated are donated to the Citadel to help build our community", which is curiously similar to collective ownership of the means of production. Despite their commitment to private property and classical economic principles, town residents will be in a lease relationship for their land.  This will ensure that the Citadel's planners can "make the community for Patriots only"  presumably suggesting that adherence to the various agreements and ideological positions is more complex than a simple agreement. 

The Citadel seems to have thought through the necessities of managing a complex and vibrant urban settlement more thoroughly than Beck. The website list's a number of businesses related to subsistence production and consumption, including a biomass plant, a farmer's market, a beer brewery, and a grocery store.  The biomass plant suggests some efforts at energy recyling, though it is less clear how non-biological waste (including some presumed chemical runoff from the weapons factory) will be managed or removed, and who will do the removal.

Despite its militaristic and defensive stance and strict criteria for admittance, the Citadel website suggests that it will welcome relationships with outsiders.   The "Revenue" page of the website contains an extensive discussion of tourism. Likewise, the organizers intend to develop an internal economy through trade interactions with the outside world, noting that "businesses with markets outside of the Citadel will be vital to creating a robust local economy."  

Given the vital role that governments play in brokering and organizing economic transactions, it is hard to see how these two processes (defensive enclosure and free trade) might not come into conflict.  For example, who will arbitrate if there is a dispute over trade between the Citadel and the outside world?  How will they address someone stealing or re-branding the IIIarms factory logo? What happens if the Citadel's minted currency isn't accepted beyond its walls, or if the price of gold and silver fluctuate?  

These questions of social and economic process, not often discussed by Utopian planners, are addressed most directly by a third recently proposed conservative Utopia--the Commonwealth of Belle Isle, to be located on a 982 acre island park in the Detroit River, attached by a bridge to Detroit, Michigan.  The park today (pre-utopia) is like many leisure island parks around North America, if somewhat grander, containing a botanical garden, conservatory, a racecourse, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, and a performance space, in addition to walking paths.  A local libertarian real estate magnate has proposed that the state government turn Belle Isle park  into a commonwealth, like Guam or Puerto Rico, and create a free-market utopia there.  Recent news suggests that this plan has been cancelled or put on hold, largely due to outcries from the city council.  However, the idea for the free market "Commonwealth of Belle Isle" will probably not die so easily, and the plans listed on the Belle Isle website are quite revealing.

There are no maps of the Commonwealth of Belle Isle on the website, only a few artist renderings, and little description of its spatial organization.  It is much closer to what David Harvey calls a "Utopia of Process", (Harvey 2000) where the spatial organization is subsumed to the ideals used to manage it.  However, some spatial aspects may be inferred from the website FAQ.  The population is expected to grow to around 35,000 people and housed entirely on the island.   The main feature of this Utopia is a complex barrage of idealized pro-business policies which will be enacted in the Commonwealth, primarily reduced government regulation and taxation.  The major economic and productive activities on the Commonwealth would be ones that seemingly benefit from these policies, especially "finance, insurance and investments." 

Whereas the Citadel takes great pains to discriminate who would be a resident, citizenship in the Commonwealth of Belle Isle is essentially a business transaction--a $300,000 fee will buy a person the

A drawing of the potential Commonwealth of Belle Isle right to live there, though they will have to purchase their own place to live. This fee would pay for the infrastructures of managing a city, including " sewer, water, paving, electric and gas utilities and the monorail." Any other social needs would be underaken by charities (according to the website, "crowded out" in the US today by government programs).

Additionally, unlike the militarized Citadel, Belle Isle would intimately and symbiotically interact with the economy and society of Detroit.  The wealth generated by "the Belle Isle Tiger" would create jobs for depressed Michiganders, and the City of Detroit would, in turn, provide "a large part of the culture for Belle Islanders". Openness of economic and non-economic activities is one of the key metaphors drawn upon in the descriptions of the Commonwealth of Belle Isle.  The free-market policies and reduced government will supposedly lead to immigration from all over the world, creating "a very cosmopolitan city, with an interesting culture."  This embrace of ethnic diversity is ironic, given that Belle Isle park owes its existence to the conservative reforms of 19th century urban  planner  Frederick Law Olmstead (who also designed Central Park in New York City).  Olmstead's parks were deliberately reformist, creating naturalized spaces in urban areas that would theoretically function as social "safety valves", and addressing Anglo fears about immigrant and working class anger and agitation over industrial inequality (Blodgett 1976). Whether the Commonwealth of Belle Isle would create a happy and diverse community under the aegis of loose government and free markets is unclear. Similar experiments in places like the Island of Saipan have led to a diverse population of immigrants, but as Thomas Frank has  noted, that population was largely low-paid east Asian garment workers, whose poor treatment and exploitation led to a series of US political scandals in the last decade, including the Abramoff lobbying scandal (Frank 2008: Ch. 9).  Additionally, it is hard to envision much social diversity, given that residents have to pay $300,000+ to live there.  

Still, this show of diversity is striking when compared to the implicit racial makeup of Independence, USA, whose descriptions suggest white, middle-class residents and visitors. The entrance to Independence would be designed to mimic Ellis Island, because, as Beck indicated "most of our families came [to America] through Ellis Island". Immigrant identity, and Ellis island in particular, holds a special metaphorical significance for White america, and Independence, USA's Ellis Island -gate would not have the same resonance for African-descent, Asian-descent, or Native American-descent peoples, despite their equal agency in constructing the America that Beck so reveres.  Similarly, Beck's audio-visual immersion center, featuring "cowboys versus indians" would probably not attract Native tourists, especially since in this presentation, "only at the end when the cowboys and the indians come together you will see that a little bit of truth is on both sides".  The Citadel explicitly states that it has no racial or ethnic criteria for membership, focusing instead on ideological allegiance to its Patriot Agreement and the libertarian principle of "rightful liberty", neither of which are partcularly elaborate on issues of social diversity.  But given the racial subtext of anti-state conservativism in the 20th century (Gilens 2009), and complex and racialized legacy of gun control in America, one wonders how strong this commitment might be.  

All three of these utopias draw on a wide range of symbols, forms, and ideologies.  For instance, all three utilize and deploy spatial and social concepts that have not always been associated with conservatism.  Independence, USA has elements of socialist housing policy as its central residential organizing logic.  The Citadel's economy is based on a re-distributive and collectively owned business.  And the Commonwealth of Belle Isle's economic and social policies would've been called "liberal" in the 19th century. 

One of the spatial forms that all three utopias drawn upon is the Amusement park.  Simultaneously monuments to nostalgia, technological playgrounds, and temples to mass consumption, amusement parks provide a common and easily-interpretable spatial form in which to locate conservative political ideals.  Glenn Beck and the designers of the Citadel explicitly compare themselves to Disneyland. This comparison is not incidental given how that Disneyland recasts various cultural ideas of American-ness, and pays strong allegiance to commodity culture (King 1981).  Likewise, the website for the Commonwealth of Belle Isle contains an amusement park-like list of tourist attractions will bring people to this new settlement including restaurants, sports complexes, boat clubs, a Formula One race course (!) and much more.  

Spatially, these Utopias vary in the way that they manage tensions between interior and exterior social space, production and consumption of goods, services, and information, and the relationship between individuals and groups within and without. For example, Independence, USA foregrounds the relationship between nationalist symbols, middle-class social life, and metaphors of stability. Conversely, the Citadel manifests a reactive, defensive politics, while Belle Isle combines metaphors of the vibrancy and diversity of globalization and free-market exchange with anti- social-state rhetorics.  These contradictions are not unique to conservatism, and  modern liberal or left-leaning ideological and political formations are equally rife with contradictions. 

Perhaps what distinguishes these conservative Utopias from other political activities is that they are attempts to imagine and spatialize the future, rather than simply manage the present.  Imagination is powerful--it takes us out of where we are and into where we might be.  All Utopian visions, conservative or socialist, radical or reformist, involve the deployment of imagination and attempts to reconstruct the future as different from the present. I find myself wondering if the media skepticism that has greeted these Utopias has less to do with their occasionally contradictory and (to my eyes) odious politics, and more to do with disbelief at the thought that the world could or should be other than it is. More directly, the recent economic crisis has largely manifested as successive waves of extreme spatial fragmentation--people being kicked out of their homes, businesses closing down, towns depopulating, etc... The idea of constructing a safe and livable space out of such chaos is laudable, and I think it behooves all of us, regardless of the specific politics involved, to understand the relationship between space, social life, politics, and possibility that these Utopias represent, if we want the future to be better than the past.



Blodgett, Geoffrey (1976) "Frederick Law Olmstead:  Landscape Architecture as Conservative Reform" The Journal of American History, Vol. 62, No. 4.  Pp. 869-889.  

Cohen, M.N. (1998) "The Emergence of Health and Social Inequalities in the Archaeological Record." in Human Biology and Social Inequality.  Society for the Study of Human Biology Symposium 39.  Edited by S.S. Strickland and P.S. Shetty.  Cambridge University Press.

Frank, Thomas (2008) The Wrecking Crew:  How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched themselves, and Beggared the Nation.  Holt Paperbacks, New York.  

Gilens, Martin (2009) Why Americans Hate Welfare:  Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy.  University of Chicago Press, IL.  

Harvey, David (2000) Spaces of Hope.  University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Hatherley, Owen (2008) Militant Modernism.  Zero Books, Hants, U.K.

Jones, Owen (2011) Chavs:  The Demonization of the Working Class.  Verso Books, London, U.K.

King, Margaret (1981) "Disneyland and Walt Disney World: Traditional Values in Futuristic Form" Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 15, Issue 1, Pp. 116-40

Tarlow, Sarah (2002) "Excavating Utopia:  Why Archaeologists should study Ideal Communities of the Nineteenth Century" International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 6, No. 4.

Article originally appeared on Archaeology | Culture | Politics (http://www.quentinlewis.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.