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The Ideal City, by Dr. Cosimo Noto
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The Ideal City, by Dr. Cosimo Noto

This book should be read in conjunction with Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward published in 1888. Published a few years after Bellamy’s work, which achieved widespread fame at the end of the 19th century, The Ideal City emulated Looking Backward and in many ways restated the basic theme in that visionary and highly speculative book in much more satisfying fashion. The Ideal City, however, was almost entirely ignored due to its local nature being set in the city of New Orleans, a Southern town far from the opinion-creators at the New York Times, which was afflicted with Confederate veterans’ parades and Jim Crow racial segregation well into the modern era. As in Looking Backward, the narrator in The Ideal City is a medical doctor extolling the anticipated miracles of “Socialism.” In The Ideal City, however, instead of waking up in the future to an already constructed Utopia where no trace of 19th century America remains, Dr. Noto grounds his story in the actual day-to-day misfortunes and ailments of the 19th century New Orleans in which he lives.

Taking with him a wealthy young friend, Mr. Luckyborn, who has spent much of his life in 19th century Persia—an odd if not unbelievable second home for a wealthy American, which exile we make take as Noto’s equivalent of Bellamy’s century of unconsciousness—on his daily rounds as an itinerant General Practitioner among the poorest quarters of New Orleans, Dr Noto, like Dr Leite in Looking Backward, lectures the reader cum young friend on how the new faith of Socialism will prevent poverty and end ignorance, and, by improving the material condition of the poor, cure or prevent all illnesses, which Dr Noto states repeatedly are almost entirely consequences of bad diet, bad air, and overwork imposed by the oppressive American factory system of production, which he declares is about to come to a well-deserved end: “our mean and corrupt civilization is dying.” His professional advice to his patients is in almost every case the same: to quit factory work and move to the country, which is healthful apparently primarily due to the absence of capitalism, which he equates with waste, social exploitation, and disease.

Strangely, even though Noto favors abolishing national frontiers, turn of the century U.S. imperial hubris is tightly interwoven in Noto’s story. He makes repeated references to the “great Dewey” whom he expects will lead an American Socialist navy in defeating the evil capitalist navy of European kings and priests (especially the Kaiser and Tsar and hordes of mercenary Turks whom Dr. Noto, who is of Italian extraction, particularly dislikes), and after a great European land battle where the American Socialists are improbably led by a “General Lee,” Dewey plays a major role in administering the new pan-Atlantic Socialist government, this being the same Dewey of naval fame who sank the Spanish fleet off Manila in 1898, and who subsequently played no role whatsoever in American politics.

Noto sees the U.S. as an inherently superior and even divine civilization that is uniquely free of the European afflictions of “monarchy and religious sects,” which he blames for capitalism, and the U.S. therefore, in his opinion, being free of monarchy and a state religion, is already well on the road to Socialism. Noto refrains from using the term Marxist, but he clearly has a Marxist outlook. Despite this, he unaccountably invokes God and Jesus repeatedly and cites interminably long and tiresomely irrelevant biblical passages together with equally odd extended quotes attributed to Solomon, to whom he seems to be as strangely attracted as to Dewey, a very odd combination given his Marxian world-view, which doctrine is of course by definition explicitly atheistic.

While admirable in its aspirations for world peace, promotion of science over religious fanaticism, republicanism over monarchy, and mutual aid across nations and races, The Ideal City views Marxism as a kind of quasi-Christian Millennial movement, a common flaw in Socialist thinkers of the day, with even leading Marxist thinkers like Antonio Gramsci, a contemporary of Noto and another Italian, taking an identical position. In Noto’s view, this millennial Marxism will extend life spans, improve society’s morals, cure the common cold, cause rapid weight loss without dieting or exercise, remove unwanted hair, and sing the Star-Spangled Banner, all at the same time.

Like Bellamy’s book, Noto’s work bears many signs of what later became the social and political position of the radical wing of the Social Democrats in Europe, and of the left splinter of Progressives in the U.S, i.e., specifically not anarchist or libertarian but rather statist:

(1) Misidentifying Millennial Socialism with the interests of labor unions—an unfortunate confusion since the first act of every revolutionary Socialist government has always been to outlaw unions of every type as potential challenges to unlimited state rule.

(2) Ascribing superior morality and wisdom to mysterious and inaccessible foreign sources—the more remote the better so as not to be contradicted by actual experience. In Noto’s case 19th century “wise Chinese philosophers” whose imperial Manchu society Noto asserts is more moral and better organized than the U.S., and therefore will outlast the U.S. (sic!). Note: the imperial dynasty collapsed in 1911, just eight years after The Ideal City was published.

(3) An extreme Prohibitionism, or moral abolitionist tendency, calling for the abolition of private property, the stock exchange, banks and money interest, alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and organized religion, all of which Noto wishes to eradicate, much like a modern day secular Savonarola, giving no shrift to the desires of those who may regard the rewards of these activities as worth their risk.

(4) The shutting or nationalization of all factories and mines as constituting landmarks of destructive capitalism—but without Noto offering any suggestion whatsoever for how their essential products may continue to be produced. Bellamy’s work presumes that nationalization will always result in increased efficiency, and advocates nationalization of the entire economy and the outlawing of all private employment and private property. Noto does not state this view explicitly, but seems to accept the validity of this presumption of the natural superiority of government ownership of the means of production.

(5) The need for international cooperation in governing the “low race of Negros” wherever on the globe they may reside—the proletarian equality that Noto has in mind for New Orleans plainly is not meant to extend to the blacks of his Ideal City, and in Noto’s view the White Man’s Burden apparently is expected to continue indefinitely under Socialism. This parallels Bellamy’s similar views on the necessity of an international administrative body of former imperial masters whom he expects to continue governing “low races” for the foreseeable future. Noto does not state whether the working class patients whose homes he visits in New Orleans are of European or African ancestry, but in his rigidly segregated world it is safe to assume they are all white.

(6) Noto’s position on women also parallels Bellamy in favoring the exemption of women (upper-caste only) from employment, who, as society’s guardians of religion and morality, are destined for a life of leisure and self-education. Bellamy does not extend this exemption to lower-class women, whom he desires to free from the “slavery” of marriage and child-rearing, only to force them into labor corvees to perform hard labor constructing mines and canals for free for the state. Noto does not go this far in his utopia and leaves the precise status of lower caste women undefined in his Ideal City.

(6) Faith in the imminent collapse of an immoral America. This was of course an article of faith for Marxists of the last century, millennial or otherwise.

(7) Anti-exceptionalism in regards to U.S. civilization, i.e., there’s nothing special after all about the good ol’ USA, it’s just another landscape of satanic mills—except, in Noto’s view, its high potential for embracing Socialism. This is a common position of Europhiles, and perhaps a valid viewpoint that may be useful in countering excessive impulses in the opposite direction, i.e., that the U.S. is so special that it need take no account whatsoever of the rest of the world but expects everyone to eagerly embrace the “American Way.” However, the remote utopias that these same Europhiles often admire so much somehow always turn out to be incomparably worse than the “satanic mills” that they claim to despise so much, with the result that surprisingly few ever seem to choose to relocate their residences and change their citizenship from the U.S. to those much-admired “utopias.”

(8) Faith in the “science of society.” Like Marx, Noto gives no credit to that idea’s true author, the 18th century Italian, Gianbattista Vico, and, like all Marxists and political Socialists, entirely fails to account for the universal failure of any such science of society to produce its stated goals—or even to acquire predictive value. Instead the imminent collapse that such Marxists expect in capitalist countries with such bated breath, always seems to happen to their favorite utopias instead.

(9) A science of society implies government by scientists. So another plank of Noto and Bellamy is: a predilection for top-down social engineering of society by medical doctors (the priesthood of modern science) without regard for the U.S. Constitution, representative government, legal processes, voting, or international law. Noto merely generalizes on this subject; Bellamy offers far more concrete suggestions—spelling out in frightening detail an elaborate apparatus of secret police and gulags, which he seriously proposes be implemented after all private property and employment are outlawed. Noto does not go so far with such “practical suggestions,” preferring to divagate into interminable descriptions of General Lee’s victories in France over the Kaiser, the Tsar, and the capitalist league! Great fun. But not very enlightening.

(10) The obverse of medical-inspired social engineering—the abolition of all lawyers, in Noto’s words, as “parasites” who “do not work.” This is a common charge made by all dictators against intellectuals and anyone else who inconveniently points out the existence of laws and human rights, and by many doctors who fail to comprehend that every society must ultimately be grounded in social rules, not just the whims of the modern white-coated medical priesthood, and it is lawyers who labor to know those rules, and not mechanics and engineers and doctors who by definition do not know them and have yet to learn them. Engineers and medical personnel for some strange reason never seem to comprehend the fact that, were it not for lawyers who often devote their entire lives—and often entirely without pay—to secure people’s human rights around the world, no one at all would have any.

(11) Worship of an amorphous “Nature” as an alternative to organized religion, without being able to state exactly what “Nature” is, or how humans—who are surely as much a part of Nature as any other animal—should relate to it, and without clarifying how we may extract any human values from our interaction with Nature except for the equally vague proposition that humans should “conserve” it, despite the fact that humans must live in it, use it, and eat it, and that it cannot be otherwise.

(12) Rejection of the notion of individual will or soul, a common tendency of 19th century Europe, which likely has contributed to today’s popular denial of the value of life itself, impelling many to assert that the very existence of humanity is “bad for the planet.” With one foot still in the Bible, Noto himself would probably not agree with such an extension of his assumptions, though it is difficult to see how his rejection of large families in principle could be implemented in practice if every fetus were to be recognized as possessing a soul.

(13) Rejection of slow reformism in favor of immediate violent Revolution, Noto being a few decades behind the European working class, who had ditched political revolt in favor of reformism already by 1903. This reminds one of the witch hunts in Salem pursuing a social policy that had once been favored in Europe but had long since been abandoned, America always seeming to be behind European intellectual trends by at least one full generation.

(14) Identifying Socialism with radical egalitarianism and the utopian view that it can or will put an end to social classes, which has never occurred anywhere that self-declared Socialist governments have come to power. Noto’s view that the U.S. was well on the road to Socialism in 1903 seems incomprehensible and little more than wishful thinking, with his attempt to pin capitalist satanic mills to the Kaiser’s shirt and the Tsar’s jacket only sleight of hand. State control of industry in Germany was always far more extensive than in the U.S. And Russia’s tradition of zemstvos, or communal collectives, predates by centuries even the advent of industrial development in that land. But Noto’s grasp of history was insufficient to be aware of these facts.

(15) A demonstrated intolerance of conflicting opinions by an inclination to dismiss critics as “lunatics”. This is the aristocratic and linear-thinking medical mind obtruding again and matches Bellamy’s similar tendency in his proposed utopia. Perhaps when one makes a religion of secular science, the temptation to label all opposition as scientific evidence of insanity is just too great to resist, and we saw that trend appear in the Soviet Union prior to its dissolution.

(16) Faith in the perfectibility of human nature including even a physical transformation into a new Socialist body and mind—another popular illusion of turn-of-the-century Europe. Despite frantic, and bloody, attempts to bring about such changes, from Stalinist Russia’s forced collectivization to Pol Pot’s forced de-urbanization, no evidence has ever appeared that such has ever happened, or is even possible. Plato stated that all philosophical problems were grounded in the human condition, which is permanent and immutable. Nothing in human history has yet suggested he was wrong.

(17) Rejection of the formal institution of marriage and having large families. This is another plank of utopians—both left-wing and right-wing. While the problems of having many children with insufficient money to support them are amply clear, and various means of birth control have in fact always been practiced in every human society in history in one form or another, still it is also clear that formal institutions of marriage have also been present in predictably standard forms in every society that has ever existed throughout human history everywhere in the world. It seems certain that neither Bellamy’s utopia nor Noto’s quasi-millennial Marxism could make a dent in that institution—or should.

Dr. Noto asserts that Marxian Socialism is the fulfillment of the European rational tradition of the French Revolution and claims that Marxism rejects the ideal and mystical doctrines of Kant. This view remains strangely popular among professors of history and other dwellers in ivory towers, who should know better, but the exact opposite is the truth. Marxism was not the fulfillment of rationalism and objective truth, nor in any sense a “science of society,” but merely political aggrandizement by adroit manipulators who used increasingly mystical doctrines to satisfy their personal lust for political power. Marxism and its later incarnations, such as political Communism, were subsumed by irrational doctrines that rejected individual autonomy and consciousness in favor of a longer and longer list of allegedly more authentic embodiments of social consciousness which outsiders were allegedly barred from comprehending by defined limitations on their consciousness, from class to national culture to psychiatry to biological race to the largest and finally even to the most minor of ethnicities, and even to gender, all of whose consciousness became allegedly inaccessible to those whom History or Providence had by arbitrary definitions excluded from its ranks. Noto rides this tram of solipsism and determinism all the way to the end:  all is in the end deterministic because “there is no will at all.” In toto, the millennial Socialism of Noto and Bellamy might actually be viewed as the revenge of the Catholic Church on modernity, because it in fact has many traits in common with traditional Catholicism.

Altogether, a charming work and a period piece that provides highly interesting insight into the growing partially-secularized progressive left-wing among Southern intellectuals, the very class that a generation later put FDR into power. The author, Dr. Noto, was also a friend of this reviewer’s great-grandfather. —Glenn Lazar Roberts for SiriusReviews.com.

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The Ideal City, by Dr. Cosimo Noto, 1.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating
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