John Gray, Professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, has this rather sharp take on utopianism in his book, Black Mass (2007):
The pursuit of a condition of harmony defines utopian thought and discloses its basic unreality. Conflict is a universal feature of human life. It seems to be natural for human beings to want incompatible things—excitement and a quiet life, freedom and security, truth and a picture of the world that flatters their sense of self-importance. A conflict-free existence is impossible for humans, and wherever it is attempted the result is intolerable for them. If human dreams were achieved, the result would be worse than any aborted Utopia. Luckily, visions of an ideal world are never realized. At the same time, the prospect of a life without conflict has a powerful appeal. (17)
But what about the utopian imagination—and hope? Don’t human beings need social vision, even if it is, in its most idealized form, illusory? What about Barack Obama? Gray says:
There is a school of thought that insists on the indispensible value of the utopian imagination. In this view, utopian thinking opens up vistas that would otherwise remain closed, expanding the range of human possibility. To remain within the boundaries of what is believed to be practicable is to abdicate hope and adopt an attitude of passive acceptance that amounts to complicity with oppression.
I think I agree with this “school of thought,” but Gray merely acknowledges its existence, without necessarily endorsing it. On pages 19-20 of his book, he suggests some works of imaginitive fiction that he thinks might help us in tamping down our idealism. Oddly (and ironically) enough, he appeals to eight works of distopian imaginitive FICTION:
- Huxley’s Brave New World
- Orwell’s 1984
- Wells’s Island of Dr. Moreau
- Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?
- Zamiatin’s We
- Nabokov’s Bend Sinister
- Burroughs’s Naked Lunch
- Ballard’s Super Cannes
These are the books that Gray thinks provide “prescient glimpses of the ugly reality that results from pursuing unrealizable dreams.”
Why, exactly, the dystopian imagination should be so much more prescient and in accord with “reality” than the utopian imagination, Gray does not say.
It seems to me that Gray’s comfy dismissal of all utopian vision would have led us to conclude, 150 years ago, that slavery in America, like the poor, would always be with us; that women would never achieve a high measure of equality with men; and that homosexuals would always be perceived with contempt and treated inhumanely.
And it is not just the utopian imagination that demonizes, and crushes, masses of people in the name of a higher cause. Distopians, pessimists, and conservatives interested in maintaining a certain type of already existing order, have also been known to turn their fellow human beings into “things” readily disposable.
It may not be the utopian imagination that is the problem, but the human tendency to demonize others. Whether a society is conservative and skeptical of utopianism, or liberal and open to utopian ideals, if it sees itself metaphorically as organic—that is, as a garden to be managed—then part of its mission will always be to keep down the “weeds,” however defined.
Maybe the first step in getting rid of our swords, is to also get rid of our metaphorical ploughshares, at least as applied to the State and society.