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Elon Musk’s Utopian Town Will Disappoint — Like Most Company Towns

America’s utopian communities have traditionally promoted egalitarianism and alternatives to capitalism. Company towns do the opposite.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is planning a utopian community. In the past several months, Musk has been meeting with Texas officials about his plans to build such a town for the employees at several of his nearby ventures: Space X, Tesla and Boring, which makes tunneling equipment. He is naming the town Snailbrook — a nod to Boring’s slogan that they build tunneling machines that “move faster than a snail.” Musk’s new town will be just outside of Austin, a location that offers few regulations, low taxes and cheap labor. There is speculation that he has purchased up to 6,000 acres, which already contains modular homes, a sports center and a swimming pool. Musk has reportedly consulted his former girlfriend, the musician Grimes, and her current employer Ye (the rapper formerly known as Kanye West) on the architectural design of his utopia. Musk plans to charge well below market rates, reportedly only $800 per month for employees. But they would have to vacate their homes within 30 days if fired.

Musk has repeatedly invoked the term “utopia” when discussing his plans, but history suggests that his plans may actually fall into a very different tradition: that of a company town. America’s utopian communities have historically promoted egalitarianism, equality and alternatives to capitalism. On the other hand, company towns have controlled and exploited a trapped workforce. While the former influenced organized labor and more than a century of social movements, the latter did not live up to its promise — presenting a cautionary tale for Musk.

In the early 19th century, the United States became a breeding ground for reformers and entrepreneurs who sought to create more humane and egalitarian models of industrialization. They aimed to counter the desperate conditions they saw in British mills and factories and instead create communities where workers could thrive.

At the leading edge of this movement was Francis Cabot Lowell, who built the country’s first company town in Massachusetts in 1814. Lowell hired young women from the countryside to work and live in his factories and boardinghouses. He had an idealized vision of a mill town that would combine profit with the edification of his workers, providing dormitories and education classes. The workers, however, found that Lowell controlled every aspect of their lives and that their jobs in the mill were dangerous and exhausting. Within a few decades, the mill’s employees were largely Irish immigrants, including children, who suffered declining wages and dangerous conditions.

While this early company town failed to live up to its promise, utopians set about building a different sort of community. In 1824, Robert Owen, the Scottish industrialist, founded the utopian community of New Harmony, Ind. Although the community would be short lived, Owen’s teachings about cooperative economics had a profound influence on American workers. By the mid-19th century his followers joined with those influenced by the teachings of the French utopianist Charles Fourier to create two dozen associations where workers lived communally and practiced cooperative economics. By the late 19th century Owen and Fourier had inspired a thriving cooperative movement and populist politics.

In 1888, Edward Bellamy published his influential utopian novel, “Looking Backward: 2000-1887.” Bellamy’s novel predicted a socialist future for the country, with full employment, no prisons and a communal lifestyle. The book was widely read in the labor movement, influencing both the American Federation of Labor and the more radical Knights of Labor. Middle-class utopians created Nationalist Clubs to spread Bellamy’s message and promote policies that would lead the country toward a socialist future.

Company towns geared to generate profit for industrialists were exactly the kind of thing populists drawn to this utopian socialist message wanted to do away with.

Perhaps the most notorious company town was Pullman, Ill., built by railroad car magnate George Pullman just outside of Chicago. The town offered a variety of amenities to workers, but also subjected them to surveillance and harsh economic conditions. When Pullman slashed wages in 1893, for example, the company refused to lower rents for housing. The result was a major strike and the dissolution of the town in 1897.

And Pullman was far from an exception. In 1903, for example, Milton S. Hershey, the chocolatier, created a company town in Pennsylvania to house his factory workers and offer them a variety of amenities. By the 1930s, however, his workers were increasingly frustrated with his domineering and invasive control of the town and their lives. In 1937, Hershey reduced working hours and wages at the factory and fired activists who had successfully organized its first union. Workers responded by launching a sit-down strike, occupying the factory and demanding higher wages and union recognition. After a few days, a violent mob, made up of strikebreakers and neighboring farmers whose milk was used at the factory, viciously attacked the strikers. Workers blamed Hershey for orchestrating the riot and he, reportedly, was devastated by their lack of loyalty.

The fundamental problem for company towns and the paternalism they represented was that offering workers libraries, housing and other amenities did not quell their demands for better wages and working conditions. Nor did it make them willing to accept oversight, surveillance and other infringements upon their freedoms, which so often occurred in company towns. While life in these company towns might have sounded utopian in theory, they were fundamentally antithetical to the egalitarian, cooperative nature of actual utopian communities.

Instead, workers built on the utopian socialism of the 19th century to organize unions and launch cooperatives. While utopian socialism never fully took hold in the United States, it remained influential enough to pervade 20th-century social movements, including the civil rights movement.

In 1952 Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, sent a letter to his soon-to-be wife Coretta Scott, thanking her for giving him a copy of “Looking Backward.” In it, he wrote, “I welcomed the book because much of its content is in line with my basic ideas.” King observed that capitalism “has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”

This is the fundamental reason company towns have floundered. They are created by people whose primary motive is profit and control of their workers. In contrast, utopian communities have promoted cooperation, egalitarianism and harmony among workers. The history of American utopianism is a rejection of the individualism and competition that undergirds the company town.

This history indicates that Musk’s plan to force his employees to rent housing on company-owned land is not the work of creating utopia — no matter how nice the amenities at Snailbrook turn out to be. Instead, Snailbrook will probably follow in the footsteps of failed company towns in the past, filled with disillusioned workers resentful of the paternalism and exploitation wrought by their employer.