Utopian Thought & Imagination Reply

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.—Oscar Wilde

[The following draws upon and revises material from several posts in 2008 and 2009 from the Ratio Juris blog.]

Russell Jacoby writes in the preface to his book, Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (2005),  “Today most observers judge utopias or their sympathizers as foolhardy dreamers at best and murderous totalitarians at worst.” No doubt this was the consensual judgment crystallized in the “Liberal anti-utopianism” of such widely influential thinkers as Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, and Isaiah Berlin. Ours is an age drawn to the chaotic darkness of (often technocratic) dystopian nightmares, for we are too chastened or cynical, perhaps as a result of living through the catalogue of collective and genocidal violence conspicuous throughout the twentieth-century, to be enchanted and inspired by the visions and ideals provided by utopian portraits of “the good” or “the best” society. We might, with Raghavan Iyer in an essay on that quintessential nineteenth-century utopian writer, Edward Bellamy, ask ourselves: “Do we despair of our capacity to exercise constructive imagination? Are we doubters of dreams and believers in nightmares?” There are, to be sure, exceptions to the rule, be it Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), or “feminist utopias” (see here, here, and here). But even these utopian vistas seem several times removed from their forebears: comparatively tepid and thus timid in construction, they are but a simulacram of the classical utopian genre. And utopian political thought is rarer still (for a distinguished exception to the rule, see the Real Utopias Project).  

Picture Imperfect identifies “two currents of utopian thought: the blueprint tradition and the iconoclastic tradition.” It is the former that Jacoby would have us jettison, understood as responsible, in part, for the epithet “utopian” being “tossed around as a term of abuse, [as] it suggests that someone is not simply unrealistic but prone to violence:”

“The blueprint utopians have attracted the lion’s share of attention—both scholarly and popular. They describe in vivid colors; their proposals can be studied and embraced or rejected. From Thomas More to Edward Bellamy, their utopias took the form of stories in which travelers report of their adventures from an unknown future or land. They offered characters, events, and particulars. Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a classic of blueprint utopianism, commences with a straightforward narrative. ‘I first saw the light in the city of Boston in the year 1857.”

The use of the adjective “blueprint” here suggests Bellamy’s novel (by 1900, only Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold more copies) was meant to be taken as providing detailed plans to be implemented by social reformers and activists in a manner analogous to the architect’s blueprints used by the general contractor to construct a building. This strikes me as a rather uncharitable if not simplistic reading of what is, after all, a work of fiction, a novel. While it is true that “Nationalist Clubs” inspired by Bellamy’s vision soon sprang up with the intention of practically realizing this particular utopia, such works assume the form of narrative fiction precisely so as locate their visions and reflections at least one remove from the realm of political plans and proposals to be realized in toto in the here and now (or not so distant future). They are provocative and suggestive, stimulating the social imaginary as it were, helping us re-think fundamental socio-economic and political ideas or even construct new concepts and categories for critique and praxis. They are not literal blueprints. 

According to Jaboby, in taking to heart the biblical prohibition of graven images of the deity (Exodus 20:4-5), the “iconoclastic” tradition is said to have drawn from the wellsprings of Jewish mysticism and apophatic (or ‘negative’) theology, as well as German romanticism in particular and music and poetry in general. Perhaps its finest and foremost representative is, for Jacoby, the “philosopher of Marxist humanism and revolutionary utopianism,” as well as, it should be said, a one-time apologist for Stalinism,* Ernst Bloch:

“[T]he iconoclastic utopians offer little concrete to grab onto; they provide neither tales nor pictures of the morrow. Next to the blueprinters they appear almost as ineffable as they actually are. They vanish into the margins of utopianism. Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia opens mysteriously. ‘I am. We are. That is enough. Now we have to begin.’ In regard to the future the iconoclasts were ascetic; but they were not ascetics. This point must be underlined inasmuch as iconoclasm sometimes suggests a severe and puritanical temper. If anything, it is a longing for luxe and sensuousness that define the iconoclastic utopian, not a cold purity.

In an image-obsessed society such as our own, I suggest that the traditional blueprint utopianism may be exhausted and the iconoclastic utopianism indispensable. The iconoclastic utopians resist the modern seduction of images. Pictures and graphics are not new of course, but their ubiquity is. A curtain of images surrounds us from morning till night and from childhood to old age. The word—both written and oral—seems to retreat in the wake of these images.”

While there’s something to be said for this “iconoclastic” tradition, I find Jacoby’s dichotomous utopian typology to be rather crude. The two category types are both descriptive and normative: as Jacoby aims to demonstrate the “iconoclastic” tradition has been relatively neglected and the “blueprint” tradition rightly castigated for giving rise to all sorts of ethical and political problems if not horrors. The principal problem with the blueprint tradition is that individuals and groups are said to use these blueprints as concrete models for constructing their particular dream of a better world here and now, without delay. Those attracted to this utopian genre apparently lack all ability to discern a logical or political gap between theory and praxis and are not at all reluctant to resort to coercion and violence as means and methods for impatiently instantiating their visions and values in the world. I do not think this is either an accurate summary or plausible picture of the function of utopian thought and imagination in history (see my list of references and further reading in the next post on the subject that allow one to draw contrary conclusions).

The utopian literature Jacoby is referencing does not deserve wholesale categorization as “blueprint utopianism,” and the “images” it contains are of a different order than the literal or concrete images and visual orientation that suffuse the contemporary culture of affluent and hyper-technological societies under the spell of “virtual reality.” Utopian literature, by definition, is not intended to be construed as a blueprint, architectural or otherwise. Of course one might argue that some forms of utopian literature are structurally prone to abuse by readers enamored of their visions, moving them to utilize these works on the model of blueprints, irrespective of the needs and wishes of others. But I suspect even the most ardent admirers of the products of utopian imagination have not mistaken these as detailed instructions readymade for wholesale and immediate implementation (were that even possible or feasible). There is a history of utopian communal experimentation, for example, but it has typically been a far more modest undertaking than one would infer from Jacoby’s discussion.

In Justice and the Human Good (1980), William A. Galston outlines a succinct description of the nature and function of utopian thought and imagination that makes plain the myriad problems with Jaboby’s “blueprint” model:

“Utopias are images of ideal communities; utopian thought tries to make explicit and to justify the principles on the basis of which communities are said to be ideal. [….] [T]he philosophical importance of utopias rests on utopian thought, although the practical effect of a utopia may be quite independent of its philosophic merits [….] Utopian thought performs three related political functions. First, it guides our deliberation, whether in devising courses of action or in choosing among exogenously defined alternatives with which we are confronted. Second, it justifies our actions; the grounds of action are reasons that others ought to accept and—given openness and the freedom to reflect—can be led to accept. Third, it serves as the basis for the evaluation of existing institutions and practices. The locus classicus is the Republic, in which the completed ideal is deployed in Plato’s memorable critique of imperfect regimes.

Utopian thought attempts to specify and justify the principles of a comprehensively good political order. Typically, the goodness of that order rests on the desirability of the way of life enjoyed by the individuals within it; less frequently, its merits rely on organic features that cannot be reduced to individuals. Whatever their basis, the principles of the political good share certain general features:

  • First, utopian principles are in their intention universally valid, temporally and geographically.
  • Second, the idea of the good order arises out of our experience but does not mirror it in any simple way and is not circumscribed by it. Imagination may combine elements of experience into a new totality that has never existed; reason, seeking to reconcile the contradictions of experience, may transmute its elements.
  • Third, utopias exist in speech; they are ‘cities of words.’ This does not mean that they cannot exist but only that they need not ever. This ‘counterfactuality’ of utopia in no way impedes its evaluative function.
  • Fourth, utopian principles may come to be realized in history, and it may be possible to point to real forces pushing in that direction. But our approval of a utopia is not logically linked to the claim that history is bringing us closer to it or that we can identify an existing basis for the transformative actions that would bring it into being. Conversely, history cannot by itself validate principles. The movement of history (if it is a meaningful totality in any sense at all) may be from the most desirable to the less; the proverbial dustbin may contain much of enduring worth.
  • Fifth, although not confined to actual existence, the practical intention of utopia requires that it be constrained by possibility. Utopia is realistic in that it assumes human and material preconditions that are neither logically nor empirically impossible, even though their simultaneous co-presence may be both unlikely and largely beyond human control to effect.
  • Sixth, although utopia is a guide for action, it is not in any simple sense a program of action. In nearly all cases, important human or material preconditions for good politics will be lacking. Political practice consists in striving for the best results achievable in particular circumstances. The relation between the ideal and the best achievable is not deductive. [….]

Thus, the incompleteness of utopia, far from constituting a criticism of it, is inherent in precisely the features that give it evaluative force. As has been recognized at least since Aristotle, the gap between utopian principles and specific strategic/tactical programs can be bridged only through an inquiry different in kind and content from that leading to the principles themselves. If so, the demand that utopian thought contain within itself the conditions of its actualization leads to a sterile hybrid that is neither an adequate basis for rational evaluation nor an accurate analysis of existing conditions.”

We might nevertheless concede that some forms or species of utopian literature are more liable to misuse than others, owing to their mode of presentation, specific contents, what have you. Making such an argument would be similar to what Leszek Kołakowski attempted to accomplish with regard to the writings of Marx in his three volume magnum opus, Main Currents of Marxism (1978):

“It is not enough to say that Nazi ideology was a ‘caricature’ of Nietzsche, since the essence of a caricature is that it helps us to recognize the original. The Nazis told their supermen to read the Will to Power, and it is no good saying that this was a mere chance and that they might equally well have chosen the Critique of Practical Reason. It is not a matter of establishing the ‘guilt’ of Nietzsche, who as an individual was not responsible for the use made of his writings; nevertheless, the fact that they were so used is bound to cause alarm and cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the understanding of what was in his mind. St. Paul was not personally responsible for the Inquisition and for the Roman Church at the end of the fifteenth century, but the inquirer, whether Christian or not, cannot be content to observe that Christianity was depraved or distorted by the conduct of unworthy popes and bishops; he must rather seek to discover what it was in the Pauline epistles that gave rise, in the fullness of time, to unworthy and criminal actions.”

Compare too Raghavan Iyer’s keen observation in Utilitarianism and All That (1983):

“The search for scapegoats whose crucifixion can atone for monstrous systems of error and evil is itself based, however, on an unduly rationalistic faith in the influence of theory and on an absurdly simple view of both individual and national character. Herder may have had good reason to assert that a history of opinions would really be the key to the history of deeds. It is, however, one thing to stress the impact of ideas and opinions on policies and actions. It is quite another matter to single out certain thinkers or theories or concepts as responsible for what they could neither have visualized nor intended in all its implications. The history of ideas is, as Meinecke so clearly saw, ‘no mere shadow-play or sequence of grey theories; on the contrary, it is the life-blood of those men who are called upon to express the essential element of their epoch.’ In pleading against the tyrannical and tragic consequences of isms and systems, we may foist too easily the entire burden of blame upon those very thinkers whose theories were most vulnerable to distortion as well as exploitation.”

Jacoby provides a salutary analysis of the Liberal anti-utopianism of intellectual luminaries like Popper, Arendt and Berlin. Popper, the most vociferous of the three, castigated the “blueprint” tradition of utopianism, indeed, for him, “”utopian” has purely pejorative denotation and derogatory connotations. Herbert Marcuse was on the mark when, in a review essay of Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (1957, second ed., 1961), he notes the rather idiosyncratic definition of historicism that animates the work: “Certainly, it would be entirely unjustified to insist on conformity with lexicographical usage. However, I think such a strange deviation from usage should have firmer grounds than a construction built from disparate elements of theories.” These words apply with equal force to Popper’s more-than-stipulative definition of utopianism, in fact, he proffers a textbook example of a “persuasive” definition, one contrary to a philosophical temperament and useless for dispassionate philosophical analysis. Popper contends that the “blueprints” or “ends” of utopians are necessarily resistant to proof (or, conversely, falsification), and this structural feature, including its abstract qualities and orientation to the distant future, is what motivates the utopian to a single-minded and exclusive resort to violence so as to realize these ends, so as to instantiate the utopian blueprint. If we truly care about the relief of suffering or the amelioration of evil, Popper argues this is best achieved by means and methods of an incrementalist sort or in piecemeal fashion, utterly divorced from the entertainment of any lofty ideals, a Platonic-like focus on the Good, or dreams of a better world. Jacoby is sympathetic to what he terms Popper’s “reasonable argument,” one suspects if only because it provides no small measure of support to his own thesis about “blueprint” utopianism. The  quality of Popper’s 1947 lecture, “Utopia and Violence” is an appallingly poor attempt at characterizing the utopian genre, especially in as much as it issues from a philosopher. Thankfully, Jacoby’s sympathy for Popper’s argument does not extend too far nor cloud his assessment of its reductionist consequences:

“Popper’s reasonable argument has echoed down the intellectual corridors of history, each decade it gains more recruits. In the immediate future it would be supplemented by ‘end of ideology’ thinkers such as Raymond Aron in Europe and Daniel Bell in the United States. Other refugee thinkers would confirm and collaborate Popper’s positions. They would expand the category of utopians to include all those with a plan, and they would charge utopians with violence. Implicitly or explicitly, utopians meant ‘Marxists.’ That much, perhaps most of twentieth century mass violence had little to do with utopians barely intruded upon the argument.” [emphasis added]

Liberal anti-utopianism has been enormously influential in cultivating an ideological animus that lumps together, in Jacoby’s words, “utopianism, totalitarianism, and Nazism.” Any systematic appraisal of the evidence would find that are no necessary ties whatsoever between utopian musings and Marxist-Leninist or Maoist ideologies, or between the fertile products of utopian thought and imagination and anti-Semitism, fascism, xenophobic and ethno-nationalism, racism, authoritarianism, or any genocidal ideology.

For now, we close with the following from Judith Shklar’s illuminating study of the “last of the classical utopists,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau (blamed by some conservative ideologues for the Jacobin terror of the French Revolution):

“Utopia is an attack on both the doctrine of original sin, which imposes rigid limits on men’s social potentialities, and on all actual societies, which always fall so short of men’s real capacities. The object of these models, however, was never to set up a perfect community, but simply to bring moral judgement to bear on the social misery to which men have so unnecessarily reduced themselves. For the fault is not in God, fate, or nature, but in ourselves–where it will remain. To recognize this, to accept it, to contemplate and to judge: that was the function of the classical utopia.” (Judith N. Shklar, Men & Citizens: A Study of Rousseau’s Social Theory, 1969: 2)

* See Jack Zipes, ‘Introduction: Toward a Realization of Anticipatory Illumination’ in Ernst Bloch, Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg, trans., The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, 1983: xi-xliii.

[Cross-posted at ReligiousLeftLaw.com]

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