All their play becomes fruitful

The central tenet of Charles Fourierʼs theory was the promise of universal happiness and social unity through a radical revision of manʼs relationship to labour. Vehemently opposed to both the violence of mass insurrection and the hypocrisies and corruption of burgeoning industrial capitalism, he dreamed of a pacific cultural revolution that would emerge from the liberation of all human passions. Always critical of asceticism, Fourier imagined a society grounded in a universal right to luxury, supported by an order of work based on pleasure. The place of childhood within this project is perhaps the least understood aspect of his thought. For, rather contentiously, he seemed to be suggesting that an ideal social order could be achieved by putting children to work as soon as they could walk. Evidently this is in striking opposition to the overt opposition to children working in the contemporary developed world. The eradication of child labour is generally considered to be one of the prime social achievements of Western history, and one whose merit can only be increased by its extension to the rest of the world. It would seem somewhat perverse, from this perspective, to turn to Fourier as a thinker who was apparently idealizing child labour during the same era that the history of childhood more often identifies as epitomising the growing opposition to children working.

A closer examination of this aspect of his writings reveals that his account of the relationship between work, sexuality and childhood offers profound insights into the division between labour (or productivity) and pleasure (or leisure) under capitalism. Fourier exposes a relationship between the drive increasingly to compartmentalize life and the Romantic idealization of childhood since the late eighteenth century. Specifically, he offers an opportunity to see how the cultural investment in an idealized childhood – and the rise of a market to filter these investments into products ʻforʼ children (such as childrenʼs literature) – serve to contain and limit the desire for pleasure and, indeed, for a utopian social order. The denigration of so many pleasures as childish, regressive or superfluous to serious, adult life is central to this argument. Fourier makes ʻchildishʼ pleasures – for food, in play, in social camaraderie, through language and number games, and in ridiculous or fantastic images and scenarios – central both to his vision of a new world order and within the medium of his writing. And it is arguably this element of his theory that has stimulated the castigation and discomfort that has been expressed by so many of his subsequent readers, particularly on the occasions when Fourier has been dismissed as being simply mad.


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