Utopia is not an option

To know oneself is to disbelieve utopia.  Michael Novak

 

Without the Utopias of other times, men would still live in caves, miserable and naked. It was Utopians who traced the lines of the first city… Out of generous dreams come beneficial realities. Utopia is the principle of all progress, and the essay into a better future. Anatole France.

 

Karl Marx was right, socialism works; it is just that he had the wrong species. Edward O. Wilson suggesting that communism would have been more suitable for ants.

 

No bounds have been fixed to the improvement of the human faculties; the perfectibility of man is absolutely indefinite; the progress of this perfection… has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has placed us. Marquis de Condorcet, a French philosopher

 

To try to something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting enterprise. Michael Oakeshott, conservative philosopher

 

Humans have a real yearning for paradise and we have given it many names: Eden, Arcadia, The Elysian Fields, Valhalla, Nirvana or Shambhala. This search has not been confined to the afterlife. Unfortunately, paradise in the material world has proved to be rather more elusive, although this has not been for a lack of trying.

The term utopia comes from the novel of that name, written by Sir Thomas More in the early 16th century. More took two Greek words, Eutopia (good place) and Outopia (‘no place’) to form a new word with an obvious ironic intention. But More was not the first person to address these questions. A much earlier example of Utopian writing was Plato’s The Republic, which proposed the abolition of private property, the banning of theatre, infanticide, and mass mating sessions for the production of an elite offspring who would be raised to serve as the ruling class.  

There have also been numerous attempts to create real utopias, particularly with the discovery of the New World. In Europe anyone who had tried this kind of thing wouldn’t have lasted long but in the United States small groups could organize communities based on any weird theory, without having to worry about being overrun by conquering hordes. In fact the U.S itself was an attempt by the Pilgrims to create a utopia, a city on the hill. Since the arrival of those first colonists, the United States has spawned a profusion of utopian experiments that are still continuing today. Here are three classic examples:

Brook Farm Established by George Ripley, a Unitarian minister, this community based in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, was designed as an alternative to the capitalist state. Residents hoped to free themselves from the ruthless competition of the capitalist world so as to work as little as possible. They would then be able to use all this free to enjoy high culture. Ralph Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry and David Thoreau were all frequent visitors. Brook Farm did indeed have a thriving cultural life but practical matters proved to be more difficult and the farm was sold in 1847 and the society dissolved.

Oneida This colony was founded in New York in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes, and combined cooperativism with the marriage taboo of the Shakers to produce a new form of Utopian community. The community practiced the doctrine of complex marriage, where all members of the community were married to each other. They rejected monogamy and marriage, which they saw as sources of gender inequality. They were actually quite successful economically, producing and selling silverware but Noyes had to flee to Canada to avoid prosecution for adultery.

Pullman The town of Pullman, 15 miles south of Chicago was founded in the 1880s by George Pullman (of luxury railway car fame) It was a utopian community based on the idea that capitalism was the best way to meet all material and spiritual needs. Pullman’s employees lived there and the town was run on a for-profit basis and had to return a profit of 7% annually. The community was unable to break down class barriers, which emerged with virulence and the experiment ended in failure.

            These historical examples have a certain charm to them. But the twentieth century gave us a number of sinister dystopias (a word coined in the late 19th century by British philosopher John Stuart Mill). The attempts of totalitarian dictators to create heaven on Earth were to permanently taint the idea of utopia and challenge our idea of progress. Why has it proved so difficult and why have so many results been catastrophic?

            You cannot just abolish human nature. This idea that humans are a blank slate on which you can write anything is an inherently dangerous one. I prefer a more pragmatic conception of human nature. We are dangerous creatures capable of altruism, creating great beauty and thinking very profound thoughts. We are also very capable of greed, selfishness, and violence discriminating against other groups. The desire for power and status is a human universal. We need to judge ideologies and systems not by their stated intentions but by the results they actually produce. Mao Zedong’s rise to power in China was not some kind of accident or bad luck. We may regret that the more ethical communists didn’t get the highest positions; the reality was that it was a systemic cause the system favoured people like Mao.

I do consider myself a sceptic but I have to admit that in one sense we do need utopias. Perhaps we need a sense that progress is possible. If we are paralysed by the fear of failure we may lose out on the possibility of making the world a better place. We become like D-503, the main character in the novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, who has a lobotomy that eradicates his imagination. The abolition of slavery, the establishment of universal suffrage and the extension of women’s rights are three examples of progress that has been made. They may well have appeared to be utopias but we now take them for granted. There are complicated problems that have no easy, objective solutions and we cannot avoid the need to make trade-offs; there are limits to what we can achieve. We can make the world a better place but we must not forget that utopia is not an option.

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