On Utopia and progressive utopian ideals

Published online 7 December 2009.

Here I briefly wish to examine the idea of “utopia” for its contribution to progressive ideals, specifically w/ reference to Thomas More’s Utopia.  Conceptually, “utopia” is composed of “utopian ideals.”  Utopian ideals are ideals which appear to us to be impossible to achieve in full, and which for us represent the difference between what our society is and what it could be.  They thus prompt the activity of utopian dreaming, which is the engagement with these ideals.  This forms a starting point for the proper critique of our world and for action to create a better world.

(Why are you reading this here when you could read it at Docudharma?)

Now, the word “utopia” is typically held to have a good and a bad side.  “Utopia” is meant to symbolize a vision of a perfect world, the realization of a utopian ideal.  The word “utopia,” however, also symbolizes an impossible, pie-in-the-sky notion of possible realities.

I want to introduce the word “utopia” through the book in which it was invented: Thomas More’s Utopia.

More’s “Utopia,” published in the year 1516, was a story about an imaginary island in which life was better than it was in the Europe in which More lived, because social relations on the island of Utopia were better than they were in Europe.

The word “utopia” is itself one of the many Greek puns scattered throughout More’s work.  Utopia can be said to be derived from Greek: the prefix “ou” meaning “no,” and “topia,” meaning place, so “Utopia” is “noplace.”  “Utopia” can also be a “good place,” borrowing the Greek prefix “eu” meaning “good.”

More’s “Utopia” was originally written in Latin — as befitted a work of Renaissance scholarship.  One of its literary models was Plato’s Republic: like that work, Utopia is a model of an ideal kingdom.  But the idea of a “utopia,” using the modern meaning of the word, is that of a place existing in the realm of the imagination.  A utopia is thus a good place which is nowhere to be found.

More’s book “Utopia,” besides being a description of an imaginary kingdom on an imaginary island, also comes with a narrative telling readers how the Utopians and their practices are to be interpreted.  The imaginary island of Utopia is like a distorted mirror, and in it the Europeans of More’s time were supposed to see how screwed up their own society was.

There are examples of this throughout the book; but my favorite of these examples is the one describing the work day for the Utopians.  Here’s what More said (translated into English of course):

Because they allot only six hours to work, you might think the necessities of life would be in scant supply.  This is far from the case.  Their working hours are ample to provide not only enough but more than enough of the necessities and even the conveniences of life.  You will easily appreciate this if you consider how large a part of the population in other countries exists without doing any work at all.  (p. 42)

More’s mouthpiece character, “Raphael Hythloday,” who is saying all this, then goes on to critique the Europe of his time for the number of unproductive people it has:

Then there is a great lazy gang of priests and so-called religious men.  Add to them all the rich, especially the landlords, who are commonly called gentlemen and nobility.  Include with them their retainers, that mob of swaggering bullies.  Finally, reckon in with these the sturdy and lusty beggars, who go about feigning some disease as an excuse for their idleness. (p. 42)

And this list of non-producers leads More’s character to critique the money system of his time:

And now consider how few of those who do work are doing really essential things.  For where money is the standard of everything, many superfluous trades are bound to be carried on simply to satisfy luxury and licentiousness.  (p. 42 again: all of these quotes are from the Norton Critical Edition of “Utopia.”)

Here I’d like to explore what the “Utopian” critique of our society’s work culture means to those of us who live in the present day.  If we look at discussions of the world in this era we can in fact see echoes of the argument More ascribes to his fictional character Raphael Hythloday.  There’s a marvelous passage in an essay in the December 1997 issue of Capitalism Nature Socialism (“Ecological socialism and human needs“) in which Victor Wallis asks, “what can we do without?”  Wallis wants to imagine what professions our society could eliminate if it were really to make a maximum effort to put “an end to the wasteful consumption of resources and energy” (p. 48).  So here is what he suggests ending:

       * The advertising industry, together with private insurance, banking, and associated communications, acounting, and legal services;
* The construction, resource-use, and services arising from the automobile/ shopping mall/ suburban sprawl complex;
* Excess energy use arising from the global integration of production processes and from over-reliance on long-distance trade;
* The development of a highly specialized fuel-intensive agriculture with heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides;
* Certain fuel-intensive, typically macho recreational activities giving their users an artificial sense of power (car-racing, snowmobiles, jet-skis, speedboats, etc.);
* A growing sector of purely status-related luxuries, defined as such by (a) their frivolity — including pandering to sexist or racist norms (e.g. cosmetic surgery to disguise age or ethnicity) — and (b) their highly restrictive prices;
* The police, private protection, penal, and military services built up in response to the threat and/or the reality of challenges — whether individual (delinquent) or collective (revolutionary) — to concentrated private wealth;
* Whatever proportion of general production (and construction) or ancillary services — including health care — is accounted for by demands placed upon the system, or upon individuals, by the abovementioned practices. (49)

Thus Wallis, here, suggests a utopia of sorts in which none of these professions would “pay” anymore — and our society would, of course, be much more ecologically sustainable (and culturally healthier) as a result.  The big question, of course, is one of how to get there from here.

What I am suggesting, in this short interpretation of Thomas More’s 16th-century classic text, is that a “utopia” consists of “utopian ideals.”  Utopian ideals are ideals which appear to us to be impossible to achieve in full, and which for us represent the difference between what our society is and what it could be.  Utopian ideals are reflected in numerous works of fiction dealing with ideal societies — utopian fiction — but one can also hear utopian ideals in song.  Here is perhaps the most famous example of this:

Lennon’s “Imagine” does not depict a fully-imagined utopia in its own right, but rather a number of utopian ideals which it asks us to imagine.  For Lennon, as for Wallis and More, utopian ideals form a starting point for critique, as well as for action to create a better world — if we can “imagine no countries,” then we can also imagine “nothing to kill or die for.”


At this point in today’s diary, I would like you, dear readers, to take another look at my previous diary criticizing progressive ideology.  To summarize: progressive ideology starts with a utopia that isn’t “realistic,” and moving backward by adding “realism” until it reaches a complete acquiescence in the injustices of the present day.

The problem, here, is not that progressives are “utopian” in the unrealistic sense of the term.  Progressives do not need to be any more “realistic” than they already are — the history of progressive politics under neoliberalism reveals as much.  Of course, they don’t want to live in a fantasy world, either — but we do little justice to our problems if we trivialize the activity of utopian dreaming.  Utopian dreaming has an important purpose.  Utopian dreaming remind us to continue to ask for more.  Utopian dreaming motivates us to resist shallow critique and compromised aspirations.  It allows us to momentarily transcend the corrupt world of deal-cutting and death-totals.

The “hard-headed pragmatists” among us may insist that we need to concentrate upon the achievable, but this is not necessarily a more meaningful or less painful route than the one traveled by the utopian dreamer.  An example will illustrate how this is so.  A “pragmatist” will insist upon achievable ideals — “peace in the Middle East” for instance.  The utopian dreamer will ask us to “imagine there’s no countries.”  “Imagining there’s no countries,” regardless of its do-ability, asks us to picture a world in which we no longer have to worry that there won’t be “peace in the Middle East.”  Thus, arguably, utopian ideals, and utopian dreaming, have their place in thinking about social change.

The central problem of the progressive understanding of utopian ideals, then, is not that progressives are “not realistic enough.”  Rather, progressives do not sufficiently examine the content of their utopian ideals.  In order to flesh out this problem, I will choose here to examine a document of utopian idealism that is perhaps familiar to a number of progressives here: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The UDHR spells out practically all of the major progressive utopian ideals.

Here is what I’m arguing: “rights” are utopian ideals.  The discourse of “rights” in the US stems from the fact that this country had its revolution during the Enlightenment, an era in which utopian ideals were popular among the intellectuals.  “Rights” come from that tradition, as against the tradition of “might makes right,” in which the strong perpetually triumph over the weak.  “Rights” gave the weak something to fight for.

The creation of a world in which human rights are respected, however, depends upon whether each community can be mobilized to seize the enumerated “rights” for itself.  One can see this in the trajectory of American history — even though a number of rights have been enumerated in the US Constitution from the get-go as the “supreme law of the land,” these rights were only been available to propertied white males at the beginning, and are still only available to everyone else within the limiting frame of privilege, and after massive struggles over more than a century to get government to comply with the regime of “rights.”

Thus, for instance, the world’s billion-or-so starving people might have a difficult time achieving the rights enumerated in Article 25 of the UDHR:

#  (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Yeah, uh-huh.  What are the statistics on hunger these days?  From World Hunger Notes:

As of 2008 (2004 statistics), the World Bank has estimated that there were an estimated 982 million poor people in developing countries who live on $1.25 a day or less (World Bank,  Understanding Poverty, Chen 2004). This compares to the later FAO estimate of  1.02 billion undernourished people.

And then there was that pesky portion of the Article 25 (above) dealing with medical care.  What was the statistic on how many people in the US die through lack of access to medical care?  Or, better yet, let’s just go with an estimate of those who will continue to die through lack of access to medical care even if the House version of the health care bill is put into practice:

The overriding problem with the bill is that it prioritizes deficit neutrality over the deaths of many thousands of Americans per year. Yes, I said earlier that the bill will reduce the 45,000 annual deaths by some substantial amount, but in the “band-aid” period before the exchange takes effect in 2013, we’re still looking at 31,000 or so deaths per year from lack of insurance. And, even after that at current death rates due to lack of insurance we’re still looking at 11,000 annual deaths.

One has to wonder, moreover, how forcing people to buy junk insurance policies from private corporations squares itself with this right:

Article 20.

* (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
* (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Isn’t forcing someone to buy a policy from a private corporation compelling them to belong to an association?

The capitalist gods are jealous gods, and they demand constant human sacrifice to keep prices (and thus revenues) high.  The utopia of rights actually has to be established — but you will see nothing of how to establish the utopia of rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Thus for many low-income families, the establishment of the utopia of rights is accomplished for a fleeting instant through the running up of credit card debts — what the Institute for Southern Studies calls the “plastic safety net.”  This, then, is how the utopia of rights is made “realistic” for poor Americans.

There is, then, nothing wrong with the creation of utopian ideals per se.  What fails is the picture of reality, the contextualization, which accompanies these ideals.  And it’s not as if really basic utopian ideals are unachievable — as Hunger Notes tells us:

The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day (FAO 2002, p.9).

The problem, of course, is this: the UDHR does not say anything about how progressives are to get from our grim reality to the utopia in which the UDHR is everywhere respected, and in which access to medical care and food are indeed rights.  The gap between reality and fantasy, then, is to be filled by action within the existing system, which has not served us well so far.  What we will get for “health insurance reform” is mere “revenue-neutrality,” and what we’re going to get for climate change legislation is mere cap-and-trade nonsense.  With cap-and-trade one thinks of this right:

Article 3.

* Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

How will “security of person” be possible anymore under the extreme weather conditions promoted by abrupt climate change?  One can see, then, that progressivism, insofar as it trusts the existing political order to accomplish its goals, is insufficiently utopian.  For utopian ideals, and utopian dreaming, are the starting points for the critique of this world as well as for our dreams for a better one.  Progressivism does not go far enough in its critique of this world, nor in its suggestion of how to build a better one.  Our next step, then, is to consider how it is done with a more revolutionary doctrine: marxism.


Strong utopia and historical materialism: the marxist alternative.

Since progressive ideology does not sustain progressive utopian dreams with any degree of seriousness, it might serve to illuminate this path by venturing into comparative utopia: we shall, then, take a look at the utopian ideals of the marxists, to try to determine if they can do any better.

We should start this venture with the assumption that the gold standard for utopian ideals was pronounced by that most famous of socialists, Karl Marx, in a little document called the “Critique of the Gotha Program.”  This is the famous statement in which Marx spells out his aspirations for “communism”:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

If humanity can get along, then, in the particular way which Marx had in mind (specifically, the end of the “division of labor” as a pretext for social classes), it can create a world in which human abilities shine to their fullest extent while the fulfillment of human needs becomes the purpose of economic activity.  The US Army once advertised its personnel recruitment through the slogan “Be all you can be”: Marx, long before that point, suggested a utopian society (communism) in which one could actually be all one could be.  Of course, under our current system, human abilities are valued mostly insofar as they adorn resumes, which work insofar as they can coax money from employers.  And the purpose of economic activity is the accumulation of revenue, not the creation of a better world.

Moreover, the matter of whether the “springs of co-operative wealth” can “flow more abundantly” in an era in which the capitalist system threatens to extinguish Earth’s planetary endowment (at least through abrupt climate change) is coming under question.  The capitalist obsession with growth has become the cancer stage of capitalism.

The ecological critique of “progress” brings us back to the problem we saw in analyzing the progressive utopia: the yawning gap between the utopia suggested by ideals and the picture of reality.  The problem, of course, is that the progression of history did not turn out as Marx thought it would.  As readers of the Communist Manifesto will remember, Marx thought that the capitalist system would prepare the seed-bed for its revolutionary overthrow.  One sign that this isn’t going to happen exactly as planned might be the fact that in no country is an alternative to the capitalist system anywhere close to being realized, while at the same time the system itself is reaching certain resource limitations.

Practical marxism, marxism which aimed at bringing utopia into being through effective action, devolved (as progressivism did in the neoliberal era) into an ideology in which “realism” subtracts from its utopian content until eventually there is nothing left.  And it did this long before the current decline of progressive politics: this was what Stalinism was.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the only way the socialist/ communist movements of that time could really establish itself was to overthrow governments in the poorer nations, and the only place this succeeded at first was in Russia.  The Russian Revolution, moreover, morphed into the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, who was merely a dictator along the lines of the Czars.  So the Stalinists trusted in the Communist Party and its leader as a substitute for “the proletariat,” and in “socialism in one country” as a substitute for global revolution.  Stalinism then became a form of state capitalism.  One can also see the same trend in other, later attempts at the creation of socialist societies, only toward corporate rather than state capitalism: see, for instance, Phil Ryan’s book The Fall and Rise of the Market in Sandinista Nicaragua.  Practical marxism, then, was insufficiently anticapitalist, and thus failed.

The marxist tradition, however, has an intellectual tool which is far more useful than the traditional marxist utopia, and this is called historical materialism.  Historical materialism is a method of interpreting history: it is the ability to glean from the historical record a “natural history” of human behavior, and to extract from it a set of trends which fit the metaphor of historical momentum.  Historical materialism, then, offers progressives a version of reality which can help them make sense of their own utopian ideals.


Achievable utopia: making it so through basic community

Greater schemes toward utopia do not seem to bear fruit in our current, benighted era.  Giving up on utopian dreaming, however, is not an option: thus we might direct our attention toward intentional communities, in which individual human beings have “taken utopia into their own hands,” and sought to create utopia in small groups.  It is in these communes that people are trying to keep utopia alive, and though they may often fail, or succeed for only short periods of time, at least the various utopian ideals are tried and tested in a less compromising way than through the compromises one sees in the political world.  I am not going to devote space here to the whole history of intentional communities.  Readers are invited to browse the ic.org website, for whatever may be of use to them in their own utopian dreams.  I do, however, wish to discuss in brief one particular community — Twin Oaks — because it gave rise to a critique that is of particular interest to my argument.

Now, it’s easy to find critiques of the “intentional communities” movements throughout history which reveal why communes “don’t work.”  Many of these critiques have to do with the fact that people are often fickle, and change their minds midway through experiments which are meant to last a lifetime.  Hilke Kuhlmann’s critique of the utopian community of Twin Oaks, in her book Living Walden Two, though, is particularly interesting in regards to the argument presented here.  Twin Oaks was originally a utopian communal project begun in the 1960s and inspired by the utopian community depicted in behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner’s book “Walden Two.”  It stands out as an especially rationalist utopia — rather than merely forming a community of religious or spiritual exiles, as many utopias have been, the Twin Oaks community attempted to create utopia on rationalist, psychological principles.  The books of Kat Kinkade depict in living color what this community tried to do, and how far they got.

Kuhlmann, for her part, argues that Twin Oaks was not entirely successful  as a utopian community because it continually lost members; people would come to Twin Oaks, participate in its everyday life, and wind up disillusioned because it did not measure up to its ideals.  However, Kuhlmann adds, there are so many people looking for something like Twin Oaks that the Twin Oaks community is growing anyway, because more people are entering into the system than are leaving it!

The lesson we can draw from Kuhlmann’s book is this: the “failure” of intentional communities needs to be relativized against the failure of the outside world.  Even if intentional communities “fail,” they are still worth the effort.  In the end one thing matters: you won’t get to utopia if you don’t try.


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