Friday, October 30, 2015

A Trip to Plutopia by Emanuel Haldeman-Julius

A sarcastic oligarchic paradise
A Trip to Plutopia, a short story by Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, was originally published in 1918 in the pages of the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason. Haldeman-Julius was editor of the Appeal, but is probably best known as the publisher of the Little Blue Books, a series of inexpensive paperbacks sold by the hundreds of millions at newsstands and through mail order. Around 1919, A Trip to Plutopia was published as a 16-page book that sold for 15 cents. It was No. 8 in The Appeal’s Pocket Series, a red-jacketed precursor to the Little Blue Books. Though Haldeman-Julius’s little books covered a variety of topics—literature, philosophy, history, science, even sex education—he often used the series to promote his socialist political views. Such is the case with A Trip to Plutopia.

Plutopia is an island nation of 50,000 inhabitants. Of these, 49,500 work like slaves while the remaining 500 enjoy the fruits of their labors. Though this may sound like a depressing dystopian vision, Haldeman-Julius sarcastically depicts it as a utopia, and thus it becomes comedy. The narrator interviews representatives of Plutopia’s two classes, both of whom seem pleased as punch with the arrangement of their ideal society. The workers labor 12 hours a day, live in communal housing, and wear paper sacks emblazoned with numbers that serve as their names. The wealthy plutocrats live in palaces dreaming up ways to cut costs while squeezing the last drop of labor out of their workforce.

Haldeman-Julius takes examples of the actual atrocious working conditions of his era and exaggerates them to comic extremes. What’s not funny about it, of course, is that to some extent Plutopia is a reflection of reality. At the time of the story’s publication, big business was treating labor like slaves, and there was little protective legislation to prevent it. While the possibility of a socialist revolution or a strike in Plutopia is mentioned, the workers are too complacent to undertake such a fight or too foolish to realize when they’re being exploited by The Man.

A Trip to Plutopia will appeal to those who appreciate the labor literature of the early twentieth century, such as the more polemical writings of Upton Sinclair or Jack London. Sinclair once penned a similar satire called The Millennium, yet Haldeman-Julius’s story is funnier. In fact, A Trip to Plutopia is almost perfect for what it is, yet a mere 14 pages of text can’t help coming across as somewhat inconsequential. On the other hand, unlike Sinclair’s Millennium, Haldeman-Julius gets points for knowing when to stop and not dragging the joke out so long that it overstays its welcome.

Though penned almost a century ago, A Trip to Plutopia still bears relevance for today’s world. Though working conditions have improved, the 1% is still the 1%, and income disparity is still a huge problem in America. By depicting ridiculous wealth inequality as if it were natural and favorable, Haldeman-Julius points out the absurdity of the system that allows it to continue.
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