It’s become quite fashionable to bash utopia.
The notion that a society could be made more ideal or better organized, that social ills can be corrected by changing the structure of a society, or that life could be made somehow better were the general external circumstances of that life somehow changed—well, how absurd, yeah?
Most criticisms leveled against utopianism are generally in the context of state or centrally planned societal changes. The great failures of the communist project of the soviets are fertile ground for examples—the endless five-year plans, the collectivization of farming, forced internal migrations, gulags.
Skeptics such as John Gray (an endlessly wonderful read, regardless of how much I always seem to disagree with his conclusions), in his Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, have also labeled Nazism as an utopian project—the work/concentration camps, eugenics, eloquent internal propaganda all in the service of a grand, “utopian” Aryan future.
And the failures of past central planning is often a repeated criticism of modern “liberal” projects—universal health care, wealth redistribution, compulsory recycling/conservation. Two almost reflexive complaint seems to echo back against any attempts to re-introduce utopian ideals into societal discourse—the first is that central governments are either incapable or inefficient at social change; the second, that “you can’t change human nature.”
I’m completely uninterested in the first response, except to concede a few quick points and dismiss it otherwise. Central powers—states—are very, very bad at understanding the repercussions of their projects. Many humorous and horrific examples abound (besides the soviets), and I’d strongly recommend Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James Scott for an excellent perspective on this problem. But on the other hand, few would ever deny the awesome/aweful power of a central authority to radically change society, whether they intend to or not—think Eisenhower’s highway projects laying the groundwork for the American car-culture (I throw up in my mouth a little when I write those two words together) or the relationship between taxation levels and income/cultural disparities after the Reagan years.
But again, I’m more interested in the second criticism of utopianism—that you cannot change human nature. A wise friend once pointed out to me the absurdity of the term—human nature is an abyss into which we can dump anything we want in and believe it to be filled. Depending on who you’re talking to at any given time, humans are “naturally” selfish, greedy, kind, caring, innovative, lazy, mimicking, brutal, religious, curious, close-minded, tribalistic, unrealistic, rational, irrational, sexual, depraved, artistic, noble, or, really, anything you want us to be.
We are all that, and more. But unfortunately, even the most rigidly careful thinkers fall into the dangerous habit of asserting that humans are, “by nature,” something or other, only to then fall back into the abyss of obstinate faith. That is, amongst many behavioural theorists, we are “wired” to be self-interested. In the face of conflicting evidence, this postulate can then be extended into a more complex theory—we do “selfless things” when they will, in turn, serve our self-interest.
I do not mean to attempt to argue against the whole of evolutionary psychology on these grounds, only to point again to the abyssal void of what human nature is or is not. The most rational (and probably frustratingly meaningless to some) assertion about human nature is that we are “all of the above, and probably more.” The notion that the experiences, habits, personalities and desires of billions of individual organisms can be reduced to a few base truths seems ambitious at the very least.
But let’s go back to communism and utopianism. That Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Trotsky, or any of the rest of them went up against “human nature” and failed is, ultimately, a weak argument. There’s an overabundance of failures and massacres to accuse them on—criminalizing the dreaming of a fairer society would put us all into prison.
And there are a host of other utopian tendencies which do not receive a similar treatment. The ideal of a society organized by rational self-interest, free of government interference is, itself, a utopian project. So, too, is the exuberant celebration of a soon-to-be freer, more interconnected society by means of back-lit machines through which we’ll all soon be able to access any information we want. A greener capitalism, a world free of diseases, societies unrestrained by religious dogma, increased technological advance—the popular utopianism spewed from every media source is no less ambitious and no less unfounded than any of the previous projects.
But despite the fact that I don’t buy any of the aforementioned utopias for a second, I disagree with John Gray and others—I find it lazy to dismiss a belief merely on the basis that it’s utopian, and useless.
What’s important here, I think, is that every utopian ideal, the ones we fear, the ones we adore, and the ones we embrace without recognizing them all come down to belief. We cannot know the future. We cannot predict a freer society or accelerated technological advance (sorry— singularists and transhumanists—you’re as dependant on faith as the rest of us). There’s an exuberant optimism required to posit future answers to current societal problems, and as specious as I think it is of someone to assert that we’ll find a way to replace our dwindling fossil fuels with an equally abundant, as-of-yet unseen energy source, I won’t judge him or her on hope.
There’s something else I’ll judge them on, though, and this I think is a better metric for evaluating ideals and ideologies. A utopianism which says “another world is possible” (the chant of the anti-capitalist , “anti-globalisation” protestors) at least is not advocating for the continuation of a current problem in hopes of an as of yet unseen but messianic solution. But the unstated chants of the unnamed priests of the unacknowledged utopia we’re already in, that of modern industrialized capitalism, urges that the mechanisms causing the problems of society (global warming, increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, dwindling fossil fuels) be allowed to continue until the coming of our long hoped-for, long prayed-for salvation. Worse, and more confusingly–no man knoweth the hour—we need not less capitalism, less technological advance, less energy expenditure, but more. Just a little more faith, a little more devotion, a little more hard work, a flatter screen, a better car and a more expensive light bulb and we shall see the promised land