No Utopias, Please

We easily slip into what I characterize as our “Utopian mood”, a time when we dream about what an ideal society would look like and what it could do for us. Utopia was invented by Sir Thomas Moore (1516) to depict a perfect society, one without stress, injustice and without overwhelming poverty — a nowhere, or a somewhere over the rainbow!

The Moore idea has often been revisited since its invention in the early 16th century. It attracts attention whenever our social and political conditions deteriorate beyond what we regard as tolerable. The idea of a society which would be perfectly suited to our needs was first raised by Plato in The Republic (circa 360 BCE), but one could argue that the story was preceded by the Biblical account of Paradise, which we furthermore forfeited through our cupidity. Paradise had the additional advantage that it was inhabited by only two humans and was therefore shielded from the evil of others, from rivals, competitors and polluters. As the story of Cain and Abel shows, Humans as a group don’t develop into a peaceful ensemble.

The major difference between The Republic and Paradise was that Plato advocated a cure for human ailments, for a tomorrow and for an alternative to present-day woes, whereas the Garden of Eden is the story of a paradise lost through man’s greatest evil: supposedly his insatiable curiosity, which was offensive to the Creator. So says the Bible.

What individuals like myself regard as among our finest attributes (along with others from Plato to B.F. Skinner in Walden II, 1948) — namely our curiosity and our perseverance in pursuing it — the Hebrews regard as venal and a punishable sin. It has been so regarded by every authoritarian government since, and for good reasons. The biblical account of the Fall of Man (what Fall?) is a story of the denial of an existing Utopia and not of concrete plans to better the world. From Eden to Hell is not a political agenda, but a tale about our condemnation for being curious and inquiring. We are being condemned for qualities which — in most educated human eyes — are entirely positive, specifically those of being innovative, curious, and creative. These are the main qualities that can ameliorate our burdensome and problematic conditions and stand in sharp contrast to those of sitting resigned and mourning a long lost past which it seems we never had and which, all things considered, are hardly admirable.

But what is wrong with our Utopias, the many we have construed throughout our history, about which poets have written, minstrels have sung, and about which composers like Beethoven in the finale of his 9th symphony anguished?

All have in common the idea that there is a perfect state of individual and social existence. Many have glorified the idea that human happiness and contentment depends upon social justice, the rule of law and freedom from hardship and want. We rarely crave for affluence but often express a right to live without compulsion from others. Each epoch has come forward with its own proposals on how a perfect society can be assured, although the lists about how to accomplish such goals do not necessarily agree. However, these have in common that they deplore the things which are wrong! In short, we do not agree with what is right — but we appear to agree about what may be wrong.

The task ahead is not simple, because we do not know how to root out those things we view as undesirable — except by prohibitions and controls! Is it because we have not yet mastered the secret of how to co-operate to achieve common goals, or how to set these or how to formulate the principles which will assist us so that we can discover common goals?

If we know what is woefully wrong with things as they are, can we discover the means through which an accord can be reached on how to find appropriate remedies for our ills. I suggest that the task is less general and sweeping but that we start our search for plausible — not ideal — remedies. Everlasting cures have a habit of turning into festering sores and do not yield good prescriptions.

There are remedies which ease pain and those that defeat the disease that ails us. Clearly our need is for the latter. And it may not be an exercise in good leadership to offer an inflexible menu for the unforeseeable future. Remedies are for present ills, not for an everlasting life. Getting things right for the current condition makes for a good start but we also need to be mindful that there is always a future beyond the present which we cannot foresee and therefore cannot take care of. The future is largely unexpected because we are so curious and creative. Prescriptions for the long-term future take away the option of choice for others yet unborn who need to have a voice in their own affairs. Utopias are not for me.

russia-soviet-poster-1920-grangerMy main objection to Utopias then is that these represent more than a critique of the present — and of our past — but that these advocate a future which does not consider the unforeseen consequences of changes advocated by the proponents of each Utopia. Utopias may be totalitarian and too prescriptive in how they advocate desirable ends are to be achieved. If this is not part of their initial intent it may nevertheless be the consequence. Karl Popper certainly thought so about Plato’s prescriptions and thought that the remedy proposed by him worse than the illness which had overcome Athenian society (Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 1948, Routlege).

Plato’s plans for a republic promised the permanent enslavement of all who failed their childhood intelligence tests! A similar critique could be made about Marxian Utopias, of societies based on the principle that the control of economic resources should be placed in the hands of an all-powerful “people’s congress.” We know what that looks like and what it leads to — a dictatorship of the ambitious (see also George Orwell’s Animal Farm, 1945; and 1984, 1948 for treatments of this theme).

By all means, let us have more Utopias, but we should also make sure that we have many Hyde Park Speakers’ Corners, where different proposals can be aired without being enforced. Some proposals surely need as much fresh air as we can spare.

2 thoughts on “No Utopias, Please

  1. Fun to think about. It makes me want to ask or hypothesize the opposite.

    If we hypothesize the chief default of a utopia is a negligence toward the inevitable change of an unpredictable future; is it equally possible that there is some inherent social “magic” (for lack of a better description) which renders a utopia endlessly buoyant – always coming out ahead, regardless of the unfolding changes stretching into the future?

    Imagine an Escher painting or wood-carving. Take the stairs for example.

    What if the utopia is akin to the stairs (structurally speaking) and change is the equivalent of walking the stairs; no matter how slow or fast, furious or friendly, the utopia remains unaffected, ready for more.

    Changes come and go, but there is something elemental about the nature of the utopia that inoculates it against deterioration.

    I guess I’m saying a flawed utopia doesn’t seem like a utopia at all. Or perhaps any ‘human-utopia’ is eternally bound to be a paradox.

  2. We seem to agree: a flawed Utopia is a downer. But it is important for us who are inveterate dreamers to recognize the limits of the desirable and to what extentr our dreams are realizable without undesirable costs.. I suspect that it is not the Dream that is the problem but how we move to attain it and how we plan to maintain it.

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