The Man of System; or, See the Pyramids Along the Niagara

I’ve never read The Human Drift, an 1894 utopian novel by King Gillette, inventor of the safety razor – and not to be confused with Jack London’s book of the same name – but judging from the book’s write-up on Wikipedia, I don’t think it’s going to be getting a Prometheus Hall of Fame Award any time soon. In particular it sounds like a cross between F. A. Hayek’s and Kevin Carson’s worst nightmares:

The book details Gillette’s plans for social and technological advancements that would replace the chaos of contemporary existence, which he termed the “human drift,” with steady and predictable progress.

Gillette's rational cityGillette starts his book with a discussion of the role of the business tycoon in social reform. Gillette propounded the somewhat paradoxical view that the business magnate is the natural leader of reform, because of his rationality and his understanding of the power of capital. …

The main substance of the book, however, is Gillette’s plan for an immense three-level metropolis (called “Metropolis”) on the site of Niagara Falls. Designed to accommodate a population of tens of millions of inhabitants, the mega-city would draw its electric power from the Falls. … Gillette’s city was to possess “a perfect economical system of production and distribution,” run by a World Corporation; it would in fact be the only city on the North American continent. Economies of scale would mean that a single one of every necessary facility – one steel mill, one shoe factory, etc. – would exist. Advances in mechanization would generate ever-greater efficiencies, and ever-greater wealth for the whole society. …

Gillette gives a highly specific picture of his metropolis: it is shaped in a perfect rectangle, 135 miles on the long side and 45 on the short. … Gillette favored circular buildings, even for residences (25-floor apartment complexes), and a hexagonal street plan. … The text of The Human Drift was accompanied with abundant illustrations and plans, a graph of the “Educational and Industrial Pyramid,” and other features of Gillette’s scheme.

A quick websearch unearthed an image of the aforementioned Educational and Industrial Pyramid, which looks pretty much as one would expect:

Gillette's pyramid

Accompanying text explains that “the divisions of the pyramid from base to apex represent the Grand Divisions of Industry – all of which finally merge into the ‘WORLD CORPORATE CONGRESS.’ Under this system the individual is free to choose his path of inclination, and his progress cannot be barred.” (But what if the individual’s path of inclination is to build a non-circular house or to make shoes in competition with the One Shoe Factory? That would be anarchy!)


14 Responses to The Man of System; or, See the Pyramids Along the Niagara

  1. Shawn P. Wilbur July 15, 2009 at 1:50 pm #

    “The Human Drift” and “World Corporation” are both on Google Books now, and are worth the short time they take to read, particularly if you’ve never grappled directly with any of the urban utopias of the progressive period. Melvin Linwood Severy also compiled a couple of volumes in support of Gillette’s project, which actually draw from pretty much every radical tradition you can think of, and suggest, in a thoroughly scattershot way, some of the other directions this stuff could go. Like “Roadtown” or “The World a Department Store,” these things are fun for their over-the-top boldness.

    • Roderick July 15, 2009 at 8:20 pm #


      On a vaguely related note, the opening pages of Robert Chambers’ 1895 novel (or, more accurately, collection of interrelated short stories) The King in Yellow describe a future (1920s) America with an eerie resemblance, albeit exaggerated, to the actual subsequent course of “Progressive” politics, complete with eugenics, anti-immigration hysteria, a version of World War I, urban renewal, and even (FWIW) the revival of neoclassical architecture; but what I’ve never been able to figure out is whether Chambers approves or disapproves of the society he describes. (The narrator of the opening chapter clearly approves of it, but as the chapter progresses, said narrator is also clearly intended to be understood as insane, so it’s hard to say.) Have you read it? And if so, any thoughts?

      • Anon73 July 15, 2009 at 9:18 pm #

        There was a fun comic written recently about a poor man who is forced into competing in elaborate gambling contests for the benefits of powerful, rich wealthy men:

        (Apparently Fukumoto’s other work shares this theme). At one point the rich man says “The luxury of the one is supported by the hardship of a hundred. Do you know why they tolerate it? Because they want to be the one.”

        I still don’t know if Fukumoto approves or disapproves of this (the main character is similarly ambivalent).

      • Shawn P. Wilbur July 15, 2009 at 9:50 pm #

        It’s been a long time since I’ve read “The King in Yellow,” though as a longtime Lovecraft fan and collector, I’ve read it a number of times. I’ll have to pull it out and read it again. I was just looking at “Human Drift” again and was struck this time by the fact that it was obviously a commercial-traveler’s-eye view from the middle of the 1890s depressions, which makes some of his rationale a bit clearer. Gillette was contributing to “The Twentieth Century” (the radical paper) for awhile, right around the time of the release of “Human Drift,” and the book was reviewed and debated there. At some point, I’m planning on collecting that material. I think both W. H. Van Ornum and Hugo Bilgram had their say before things were over.

        If nothing else, Gillette’s vision was a heck of a lot more original than Bellamy’s or Grondlund’s.

        • Roderick July 15, 2009 at 11:07 pm #

          Gillette was contributing to “The Twentieth Century” (the radical paper) for awhile

          Was that Hugh Pentecost’s paper?

        • Shawn P. Wilbur July 16, 2009 at 2:49 am #

          It wasn’t Pentecost’s paper by that time, but, yes, it had been. Grondlund’s crowd was thick there. That’s where Van Ornum published the series on “Cooperation” that was essentially an anarchist take on the “cooperative commonwealth.”

  2. paulie July 15, 2009 at 2:16 pm #

    Sounds more like soviet communism than a business model to me. One
    company in each industry, and the state is run by these industrial managers or their agents? Born…in the USSR…I was born in the USSR…

  3. MBrown July 15, 2009 at 3:19 pm #

    I’ve always wondered about the psychology of the people who propose such ‘utopias’. What were they really wanting.

    One almost wished you could grab such people, take them off to some private island, and subject them to the type of society they want to subject everyone else with. Would they then realize their mistake?

    • lordmetroid July 15, 2009 at 7:42 pm #

      Nah, a friend of mine is a self-proclaimed fascist. He wants it like this even though he admits he would be one of the first to die…

      He finds ethical behavior and moral philosophy to be a bunch of no-good practices that are only a hinder for what he wants to achieve.

  4. Kevin Carson July 15, 2009 at 3:46 pm #

    Wow–apparently he read *Looking Backward* and thought “I can beat this.”

    • MBrown July 16, 2009 at 10:42 am #

      He’s not the only one. 🙂

      Wikipedia has a whole article listing sequals and responses to “Looking Backward”.

      There seemed to have been a whole cottage industry at the time for such utopia worldbuilding.

      • Roderick July 16, 2009 at 12:21 pm #

        William Morris wrote News from Nowhere as a reaction against Looking Backward.

      • Shawn P. Wilbur July 16, 2009 at 1:03 pm #

        I just released the pre-Bellamy anarchist utopia from “Liberty” through Corvus Distribution, and am about to release the Dyer Lum vs. Solomon Schindler “battle of the short sequels” to “Looking Backwards.” Tucker was hostile to most of the experimental community/utopian stuff of his time, but there was a steady stream of anarchist proposals, and participation in projects. Of course, the progressive period was sort of the “steroid era” for all of this, whether you’re talking about Gillette, the Maine cooperators, the trusts, or the One Big Union, and it’s more than a little hard to see the individualism that’s buried in some of these moves for what were essentially counter-trusts. Still, there’s a lot of interesting stuff down amid the messiness.

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