(The Owl, Hilary ’05)

SimCity is a computer game in which you have to build a city from scratch. You try to make it into a big, prosperous place with a high quality of life. To do so you have to decide where to allow industry and commerce to grow, whether housing should be high or low density, how many schools and hospitals to have, how much tax to levy and so on, all to ensure that your denizens are the happiest they could be. It’s a difficult task and there’s a certain beauty to a mayoral job well done.

Chicago is SimCity. Here the skyscrapers don’t jostle for space as they do in Manhattan; they stand apart from one another, holding themselves up to the sky with serene confidence. The tourist can take in the view from a well-placed island of green that restrains the business district from encroaching on Lake Michigan. From there he can walk to the Art Institute, to enjoy works by Monet and Picasso; or he could go up the Sears Tower, the tallest building in America. Wherever he goes, it will be clean and tranquil; the city centre is largely free of traffic thanks to the impeccable road system. And wherever he goes, signs – in taxis and airports, on rubbish trucks and school buses – will remind him of his benefactor, Mayor Richard J. Daley.


If Chicago seems like SimCity, it is because it is a Saint-Simonian city. The story of Saint-Simon and his followers is an extraordinary one, as befits a man who instructed his butler to wake him each morning with the words: “Remember, monsieur le Comte, that you have great things to do.”

Born an aristocrat in 1760, and related to the Saint-Simon who chronicled life at Louis XIV’s court, Henri de Saint-Simon renounced his title during the French Revolution and lived the last twenty years of his life in poverty. He fought on the American side in the War of Independence, was taken prisoner by the English navy and transported to Jamaica. After the war he travelled to Mexico, where he formulated a proposal for a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific, across the Isthmus of Panama (the Panama Canal was eventually finished in 1914). In 1787 he entered into negotiations with the Spanish government to build a canal from Madrid to the Atlantic, a plan which was halted by the start of the French Revolution. For most of the 1790s he engaged in business activities, speculating on land and such like, to finance a salon frequented by luminaries such as the mathematician Lagrange. But in 1799 his business partner dissolved the partnership, leaving Saint-Simon with so little compensation that he now had to get by through a combination of menial labour and scrounging off a former valet.

At this point he began theorizing in earnest. He published a succession of works which were interesting but largely ignored, before an 1819 pamphlet brought him infamy. In it he named specific fainents (do-nothings) whose loss would be no great harm to the nation. When one of the aristocrats on his list, the duc de Berry, was assassinated a few months later, Saint-Simon found himself on trial for subversion. He was eventually acquitted, but in 1823, increasingly depressed by his inability to influence French society, he loaded a gun with seven bullets and shot himself repeatedly. Ludicrously, he survived, losing only an eye. For the last two years of his life he worked with renewed vigour and attracted a new brood of disciples with his final publication, The New Christianity.

After his death in 1825 these disciples formed the Saint-Simonian school, promoting his ideas and embellishing them with some of their own. In 1829 Enfantin and Bazard relaunched the school as a ‘Church’ with themselves as ‘Supreme Fathers’ of the ‘Family’. This venture was surprisingly successful. One of the main newspapers in Paris, The Globe, sub-titled itself ‘Journal of the Saint-Simonian Religion’; and by mid-1831, there were 40,000 members, including such future luminaries as Georges Sand, the writer; Heinrich Heine, the poet; Sainte-Beuve, the literary critic; and Berlioz and Liszt, the composers. After the inevitable crackdown from King Louis-Philippe, in 1832, the religion was dissolved.

Despite this, Saint-Simonianism continued in its secular form and had a profound influence on many prominent 19th century figures: in Paris – Marx and Engels, Comte, Thierry, Proudhon, Blanqui, and Louis Blanc; in Russia – Herzen, Ogarev and Dostoevsky (at least during the 1840s); and in England – Thomas Carlyle, and (largely through Comte) J.S. Mill and George Eliot. Many of the lesser-known Saint-Simonians went on to do practical work in accordance with his doctrines, aiming to advance the economic expansion and industrialization that would liberate humanity: they became bankers and engineers, providing the finance and expertise necessary to cover Europe with railways and to dig the Suez Canal, among other projects. Among these practical Saint-Simonians, and most importantly for our present purpose, was Baron Haussmann, the man who redesigned Paris for Louis Napoleon, giving it its distinctive wide boulevards and massive parks.


So Saint-Simon was an extraordinary figure. But what did he actually say? It’s a difficult question. His writings are various and by no means coherent. He has been claimed as the founder of sociology, the founder of socialism, a utopian, meritocrat, technocrat, free-marketeer, utilitarian, romantic, feminist and visionary cult-leader. His most recent biographer, Olivier Petre-Grenouilleau, argues that the lack of systematicity in his work means we must not force his ideas into a uniform shape but rather appreciate the multiplicity of his thought as evidence of his restless personality. But what we can ask is which of his ideas are in evidence in Chicago.

Saint-Simon reasoned that society was an organic system. The French Revolutionaries had not appreciated the nature of the system they were tampering with, and so disaster had ensued; what progressives needed was a “science of society”. The progressive goal should be to advance society in such a way as to make everyone satisfied: to facilitate and expand production to ensure everyone was well-fed, and to institute meritocratic social policies (where merit is understood as behaviour conducive to the general good). These goals led him to advocate “the replacement of government by administration.” Government was a system of domination by one class over another; once people realized that their true interests lay in society’s organic harmony there would be no need for it. The power of administration was to be accorded to those who knew how to run things: the industriels (in practice, the ‘captains of industry’). This class would advance society by increasing productive efficiency, investing in and improving methods of education, and launching a public works program “to increase France’s wealth and improve the condition of its inhabitants in every useful and pleasing respect.”

 [I]n my view the sole aim to which all our thoughts and efforts ought to be directed is the organization most favourable to industry, to industry understood in the most general sense, including all kinds of useful work, theory as well as application, mental labour as well as manual. Such organization calls for a government under which the activity and force of the political power are no more than is necessary to prevent useful work being hindered.

In theory, Saint-Simonian life wouldn’t be mechanistic and materialistic – if people like water, ponds should be built; if they like poems, the best poets should be paid to write them. My favourite exposition of this notion comes in a footnote:

The roads and canals to be built should not be conceived only as a means of facilitating transport; their construction should be planned so as to make them as pleasant as possible for travellers. Fifty thousand acres of land – will be chosen from the most picturesque sites crossed by roads or canals. This ground will be authorised for use as resting-places for travellers and holiday resorts for the inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Each of these gardens will contain a museum of both natural and industrial products of the surrounding districts. They will also include dwellings for artists who want to stop there, and a certain number of musicians will always be maintained there to inspire the inhabitants of the canton with that passion whose development is necessary for the greatest good of the nation.


Saint-Simon’s ideas reached Chicago through the work of Baron Haussmann in Paris. Daniel Burnham, the author of the 1909 Plan of Chicago, was a fervent admirer of Haussmann and envisaged Chicago as a “Paris on the prairie”. The Burnham Plan was thoroughly Saint-Simonian. A network of ‘Superhighways’ was to be constructed; bridges were to be built; land was to be reclaimed to create a lakefront with a park; industrial zones were to be relocated away from the centre; a green belt was to be created; every citizen was to live within walking distance of a train station and a park. Even the Chicago river was to be straightened (its direction already having been reversed in 1892 for sanitary reasons). The Burnham Plan was adopted by the city in 1910 and a revised version is still in force today.

In other words, Chicago has all the advantages of a Saint-Simonian city. I live within walking distance of a train station and a park. By taxi I can return from the other side of the city with an ease that makes London look mediaeval. I can appreciate the beauty of the city from the well-groomed ‘promontory point’ on the lakefront. I can hear Barenboim conduct and enjoy Rothko and Kandinsky paintings.

But it also has the disadvantages. It’s all very Milton Keynes, for a start; no part of the city feels organic in the way that London does. It’s not just the grid system though. Everything is subordinated to usefulness and efficiency. The park between the skyscrapers and the lake is a big one, and should be wonderful; but it has an eight-lane highway running through the middle of it. The University apes Oxbridge, and so has quads and lawns; but the lawns are strewn with concrete paths, because that is the rational solution. If New College were in Chicago, the old quad’s delicate oval lawn would have a path bisecting it.

I wonder whether one can ever plan to make people happy or to make a city beautiful. In terms of urban geography Chicago reminds me of the Eastern Bloc. At some point, won’t the denizens rebel against living in SimCity? But then again, would you get places like London’s Hyde Park without planning for them? In Hyde Park, though, there is no sense of economists feverishly beavering away at optimization equations; maybe that’s it. I think of the narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864), attacking the fashionable rationalistic utopianism of the 1840s:

I, for example, would not be the least bit surprised if suddenly, out of the blue, amid the universal future reasonableness, some gentleman of ignoble, or, better, of retrograde and jeering physiognomy, should emerge, set his arms akimbo, and say to us all: ‘Well, gentlemen, why don’t we reduce all this reasonableness to dust with one good kick, for the sole purpose of sending all these logarithms to the devil and living once more according to our own stupid will!’


I’m standing by the lake. The shore is made of concrete; the trees line up in neat rows, like soldiers on parade; the lake is vast and blue. I wonder if the other shore is concrete. I can’t help thinking that were I to sail all the way to the horizon of Lake Michigan, I would hit a wall, like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show.

I wonder if anyone else feels encaged. Maybe it’s just an Old Europe thing, the snobbery of the Old World. The shiny new bench I sit down on answers me. It bears an inscription:

When I masturbate I try to
challenge myself and
not think of you.

A fellow denizen: a fellow malcontent. I wonder who he was. Truman, perhaps. Or maybe a gentleman of retrograde and jeering physiognomy. Who knows.