August 15, 2005

When did Utopia become a bad thing?

Historian Russell Jacoby wonders in a new book – "Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age" – about which Edward Rothstein writes:
Utopianism, he says, might ... have earned a bad name because of the prevalence of "blueprint utopianism" - attempts to specify particulars about the nature of a utopia's governance, family life or social arrangements. Such blueprints, he acknowledges, tend to betray "a certain authoritarianism."....

Utopianism is not a particular set of beliefs about what society should be. It is a way of believing. Its belief in perfectibility and harmony is a form of absolutism. A utopia will not admit opposition to itself, because then it would be subject to alteration - and would no longer be a utopia.

So utopias, in fact or fiction, have never been able to deal with individuality or private life or dissent. They construct a world in which there can be no disruption. Real-world utopian communities have either disintegrated under the pressure or turned tyrannical in attempts to control it. Their fantasy is that all inhabitants will yield voluntarily, which is never the case. That is the link between utopianism and totalitarianism. It is also why democracy, which presumes disagreement and transformation, is not a utopian ideology.

But Nazism and Islamicism are - not because of their particular beliefs but because of how they envision bringing their perfect worlds into being. They are meant to be all-encompassing, governing all aspects of life. They allow no qualification, whether the goal is the supremacy of the Aryan race or the submission of all humanity to Islamic shariah....

Mr. Jacoby sees enough to seek a somewhat different path. His iconoclastic utopianism is more a form of yearning, an amorphous desire for better things, a desire to improve the human condition. It is utopianism with a human face. Unless, of course, it becomes serious about this utopia business.
Well, readers, how about you? Let me ask my question in the form of a poem:
Are you now or have you ever been



Sloanasaurus said...

I suppose this would be Hayek's argument without the economics.

I suppose one could argue that Utopia would be a society where there is no reason for people to disagree. But, this still seems impossible. It is ones own recognition of his or her own mortality that causes consciousness. As long as we are limited and blessed by our mortality (that we all die at different times), we will always disagree about almost everything.

Ron said...

Why settle for the "perfect" you?

Doesn't the art of being happy involve some kind of mechanism for self-change, which implies getting rid of "perfect" ideas?...

A good utopian is like a beautiful statue of a dancer; I want to be that dancer.

Bruce Hayden said...

I can't say that I haven't had a yearning for a perfect world. I think everyone does.

But I ultimately come back to the reality that we are not perfect, and so, by necessity, this isn't going to be a perfect world.

Of course, like I think some others here, after reading Hayek, I more worry about attempts to impose a perfect world on imperfect people. And, we have plenty of examples to caution us here, Communism, both Russian and Chinese, Naziism, and Fascism, to name a few of the attempted socialist utopias of the 20th Century.

The problem always is that when faced with individuals not buying into a utopia, the only viable recourse is the use of force to impose it, ultimately resulting in totalitarianism, and in the cases above, murder on a massive scale of those who just didn't quite fit in, whether they be Jews, Russian farmers, Gays, Polish officers, etc.

Independent George said...

What's with the past-tense? I still stand by my vision of a George-centered universe.

Unfortunately, the world has not yet caught on to such wisdom.

Pancho said...

I don't know if I'm utopian....but I have been to Utopia.

Utopia Texas that is, home of Kinky Friedman's Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch

Elizabeth said...

Has Utopia ever been a good thing? eutopia=good place, outopia=no place: Its dilemma is expressed in the pun that forms its very identity.

Drethelin said...

I believe in relative utopias. Our life in america right now is most likely a utopia compared to life 500, 1000, and 2000 years ago, and I think the same will be said 500 years from now.

Walter said...

I agree with Elizabeth, utopias started as a bad thing. The coinage of the word is a a play (pun) on the idea of "no place." Early writing about Utopia used it as a standard of perfection that was not possible, but could be used as a basis of comparison for actual non-perfect items.

There is a irony in all of this, because as to try to actually figure out how to build/setup a utopia, it become apparent that the utopia is a dystopia (hence all of the problems that bruce_hayden noted about "utopias" of the 20th Century.

jeff said...

The only Utopia I'm interested in is Heaven.

And I doubt it will be boring.

Steven said...

I may have been, when I was twelve.

Hmm, thinking back, no, I wasn't.

Maybe when I was ten, though I was already showing dangerous cyncisim when exposed to shows like Family Ties.