At times one reads a work where the conclusion appear to be - if not completely correct - at least plausible, but the argument is so flawed that one has difficulties to say what to think about the whole. This is particularly true of Fourier’s Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées générales, which presents an interesting view of an ideal society, but fails to argue for it in a convincing manner.
The book itself is merely a prospect for a much larger series of works - it just advertises interesting facets of Fourier’s theory, without giving a complete justification for it. Still, even from this brief glimpse it is quite possible to see what Fourier is up to and especially where he must fail. Indeed, what else but a failure could be a work which tried to reduce four types of processes - mechanical movement of planets and stars, organic movement of living beings, animal movement and social movement of humans - into a single all-encompassing formula.
The metaphysical basis of Fourier’s theory is broadly Platonistic. We have three principles accounting for everything in the world: passive matter, divinity, which in Fourier’s ideas becomes little more than just a force providing existence and movement to the universe, and finally a mathematical schema, which God supposedly follows in forming the universe out of the matter. It is especially the third element or the schema of the world, which interests Fourier.
Although Fourier doesn’t express himself in this manner, we might say that Fourier sees the importance of Gaussian distribution for every level of universe - whenever some quality can be expressed as a quantitative scale between two extremes, most of the instances of this quality occur in the middle of the scale, while towards the extremes the instances become less and less frequent.
In the prospect, Fourier is especially interested of expressing human passions in this Gaussian manner. Fourier takes the example of florists. Let us assume that all florists have a passion for flowers. Now, most of the florists are especially interested of certain common middle-of-the-road flowers, which we ordinarily call beautiful, like daffodils, and only quite few florists are interested of certain specialties, like cactuses.
Fourier’s example shows already the problematic nature of his theory. He is keen to see Gaussian distribution everywhere, but in some cases, like with passion for flowers, it is hard to say what would be the two extremes, between which the distribution should exist. In fact, it would seem that flowers and therefore also our passions for them could be measured according to various criteria, leading to quite complex distributions. Indeed, although Gaussian distribution is a real phenomenon, in practice Fourier tries to fit it in too many places, making the more intricate parts of his theory into a mere Pythagorean number magic.
The important consequence of this rather far-fetched theory derives from a further metaphysical assumption - God is good and he has reasons for creating what he does. In the particular case of human passions this means that all the passions within our hearts are good by nature - whatever flowers a florist would want to grow, it is a part of a greater good. Indeed, it is just this variety of passions, which the society should embrace - everyone should be able to follow the calling of her heart. Now, because our society does not do this, but emphasises only the so-called middle-of-the-road passions, it is clearly far from a perfect society, Fourier concludes.
In a perfect society, then, we would have people passionately dedicated to all types of creativity. In fact, Fourier says, in a perfect society each village would have its own Homer and Moliere - and each village would also be filled with all kinds of flowers, one might add. But it is quite evident that in addition to being an example of all types of industries, florists and their passions are also a euphemism for something else, namely, sexuality. Indeed, Fourier is quite willing to admit, while in his time people became bored in their life-long marriages with their first love, in a perfect society we would admit that some people have more diverse tastes and like to sample a variety of persons with different characters.
We might say that this part of Fourier’s world is at least partly already in existence - although the ideal of a single life-long relationship is still endorsed by many, in practice people tend to do what Fourier thinks is more of the norm, that is, they spend their youth trying several people and only after cooling of their passions settle for a single person. We are still somewhat judgemental about people who never settle for anyone or settle for a number of people, but it has become a more viable option. Finally, Fourier even seems to have rightly foreseen the breaking of gender norms, both in sexuality and in life in general - while his main theory is ridiculously classified according to genders, down to having two different types of florists for male and female, he does accept as a biological fact that some members of one gender would have passions suitable for a member of the other gender.
Although the development of this part of our culture has progressed to the direction Fourier fathomed, we are still far from his perfect society when it comes to other parts. Notably, Fourier’s ideal society covers the whole globe and it appears to be heavily state organised - or at least the globe is segregated into small villages or cantons with intricate social structures and containing just enough persons for the development of all types of passions (here we see a perfect example of Fourier’s number magic). Of course, this is not meant to be a centralised dictatorship, but government merely provides the opportunity for every passion to flourish and the rest is done by human nature and its inherent needs.
A further element in Fourier’s theory is that we really don’t have to strive for the perfect society, but it is something that will happen eventually, in the course of time. You see, it is not just the range of human passions where Fourier applies the Gaussian distribution, but the whole human history. Here the distribution gets an evaluative character. The times of imperfect society, where human passions are stilted, are rare in comparison with the time of perfect society. In fact, it is the time of the extreme youth and the extreme old age of humanity in general, where the imperfection exists. This is just what God does even in case of individuals, who are at their prime in the middle of their life, and the longevity of this prime time exceeds the sufferings of the other ages (one might ask whether the inevitable corruption at the end doesn’t bring a sour taste to the life of the perfect age).
In yet another numerological outburst, Fourier suggests that his period is the fifth in the order of times, while the perfect society would start to appear around eighth period. At least in this prospect, Fourier is quite silent about the states between the current and the perfect society (and he has nothing to say about the future periods), but he does make some feeble attempts to account for the earlier history. The first period of human development already begun in a sense from a perfect society, because original humans could follow their passions without any cultural restrictions. Then again, due to the primitive nature of the first society, this paradisaical state of nature quickly succumbed to the forces of nature, such as ferocious beasts, and led to the second period of savagery. Fourier doesn’t really describe this second period that much, because “everyone knows what savagery is all about”, but he appears to refer to a kind of tribal life which native Americans were thought to live in westerns.
Savagery or second period was then replaced by the patriarchal life, found in the Old Testament tales of Abraham and Jacob. Fourier has almost nothing but scorn towards this supposed period, where all power resided in the hands of few men - it was certainly no paradise for women. Patriarchy was then replaced by barbarism - another nebulous period, but apparently Islam with its possibility of polygamy and supposed repression of women should represent that period of time. As one can already see, it is quite hard to put the whole of human history into the shackles of Fourier’s periods, since the assumedly fourth-period Islam was still a living factor in the fifth period Fourier thought he was living, or civilisation. In fact, Fourier himself admits as much, stating that many nations are actually combinations of many periods, for instance, China shows characteristics of patriarchy, barbarism and civilisation.
It is the period of civilisation, which Fourier describes in greatest detail in his prospect. It is in a sense progress, because monogamous marriages were improvement of the life of women, which according to Fourier has often been the sign of process in history. Of course, monogamy is still far from the sexual plurality Fourier endorses, wherefore civilisation cannot be the last stage of human history.
Indeed, Fourier continues, he is living at the declining period of civilisation, which began around the time when European nations started to navigate around the globe. It is especially the economic development where Fourier sees signs of decline. Embezzlements, financial speculations and series of bankruptcies all speak of an upcoming catastrophe, and philosophers like Adam Smith, Fourier ironically notes, speak highly of the economic savagery, which is destroying the civilisation and plunging world into a time of economic feudalism, in which stockbrokers and bankers live like parasites from the work of others.
Although Fourier’s furor against the speculators sounds quite moralistic, he is merely pointing out the flaws in a society, which allows such economical roguery - the individuals themselves are just living as well as they can in an perverted society. As an antidote Fourier regards the inevitably oncoming global government, which should put an end to such misuse of economy through instigation of a new world order. The main obstacle for this eventual unification in Fourier’s eyes has been Great Britain, which has through its position as the world’s foremost sea power used diplomatic means to keep Europe unifying under a single rule. Fourier at a time when Napoleon had been able to unite the nations of continental Europe against Britain, and Fourier was convinced that whichever side won, it would instigate first a European and then a global world order - a most far-fetched speculation in Fourier’s work.