Beating Our Swords into Ploughshares?: John Gray, Barack Obama, and the Utopian Imagination


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.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Beating Our Swords into Ploughshares?: John Gray, Barack Obama, and the Utopian Imagination

  1. Wolfen Draco says:

    John Gray makes the world a clearer place .
    He has done more for philosophy than any other philosopher.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I know it’s petty, but “distopian imaginitive”? “Utopic”? Sorry – I’ll make plenty of spelling mistakes in my post as well.

    Anyway, I’m quite fed up with people referring to Mr Gray’s views as “pessimistic”. He makes it quite clear in Straw Dogs and other works that progress is a fact; the point is that belief in the inevitability of progress and in the notion that it is universally and absolutely good is fallacious. And it is. cf. fairy tales.

    Let’s briefly consider your point that without the benefit of utopian foresight, “homosexuals would always be perceived with contempt and treated inhumanely”. Do you seriously believe that it requires a stretch of the imagination so great as to be called “utopian” simply to regard homosexuals as the equals of heterosexuals. I can simply and quite logically conclude that homosexuals have every right in society that heterosexuals are permitted, and that any ill-treatment they have received thus far is a result of ignorance and bigotry. I don’t need to appeal to the utopian ideal of everyone living in harmony – the matter is one of justice and fairness, which, when it comes down to it, is more pragmatic than idealistic.

  3. santitafarella says:

    thanks for the suggested corrections. i fixed them.

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