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A Brief Reflection on Utopia and Imagination
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-10-24 07:11:06
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On Friday October 21 an intriguing article by Marianne Ranke-Cormier of “Newropeans” appeared in Ovi magazine. It is titled “New Lords Replace the Old Kings.” In it she decries the loss of a democratic vision and the doldrums, if not sheer political confusion in which the EU finds itself presently, in part blaming the US for the phenomenon. She ends the article thus: “The baby boom generation, the retarded 68ists, the nostalgic of Trotskyism, and all the nice utopians of the world, once again steal their future...”

I wrote an indignant comment under it expressing my puzzlement at that attack on utopia interpreted as fanatical ideology and suggesting that the loss of vision is always accompanied by the death of Utopia. The comments of Ms. Ranke-Cormier appeared to me rather cynical and outright Machiavellian. But in fact there are varied interpretations of Utopia and that there is more to a society than its economy or even its political structure. I submit that it is Utopia that buttresses the desire of the human heart for justice and the vision of a more just and fair social order.

These ruminations led me to reconsider the history of Utopia beginning with Plato and why it is now dead, so dead, in fact, that the death of history has already been declared by the likes of Francis Fukuyama to whom we shall return. I’d like to share those brief reflections with the Ovi readership. In the first place I reexamined a famous article by Professor Leszek Kolakowski of Yale University titled “The Death of Utopia Reconsidered” which was written way back in 1982 and delivered at the Australian National University for the Tanner Lectures on Human Values.

Professor Kolakowski ends that lecture thus: “…both Kant’s theory of the radical evil and his belief in the indefinite progression of rationality - a progression which can go on amid the unremitting tension between our love of freedom and our sociability, between individual aspirations and societal order, between passions and reason - are useful to us. In the standard sense of the word “utopia,” Kant was clearly an anti-utopian as he had never expected an ingenious technical contrivance that would bring about the actual state of perfection and bliss. He did believe, though, in the calling of the human race, in a teleologically propelled movement, the end of which we can never achieve or locate in time-an asymptotic growth, as it were - and which we nonetheless always have to keep in mind if we want to remain human. These two complementary sides of his “as-if ” philosophy - a belief in a perpetual motion, loaded with struggles and contradictions, toward a goal, and a disbelief that the goal might ever be effectively reached - are certainly reconcilable in philosophical terms. It is unlikely, however, that mankind as a whole could ever be converted to Kantian philosophy. Therefore it is likely that two kinds of mentality - the skeptical and the utopian - will survive separately, in unavoidable conflict. And we need their shaky coexistence; both of them are important to our cultural survival. The victory of utopian dreams would lead us to a totalitarian nightmare and the utter downfall of civilization, whereas the unchallenged domination of the skeptical spirit would condemn us to a hopeless stagnation, to an immobility which a slight accident could easily convert into catastrophic chaos. Ultimately we have to live between two irreconcilable claims, each of them having its cultural justification.”

It is obvious even from this concluding excerpt that Kolakowski considers Utopia open to two divergent interpretations (which he calls the skeptical and the utopian): it could degenerate into a political ideology (such as Nazism or Communism) for which political fanatics are ready and willing to commit all kinds of atrocities and crimes and then rationalize them via the utopia (the utopia justifies the means…), or it could be an imaginative blueprint to inspire people to a vision of a more just society, albeit ultimately unreachable. Kolakowski sees those divergent interpretations as unbridgeable; which means we have no choice but pay attention and live with both.

But to go on, it is no great revelation that ever since Plato’s Republic western philosophers have dreamt of ideal societies, which we now call utopias, or societies which have no chance of being realized here on earth. Plato, via Socrates even proposes “the noble lie” or myths to be told to people who cannot do philosophy and thus motivate them to live an ideal life of virtue in an ideal polis. Some have called this Platonic proposal as good intentioned but anti-democratic. Some have gone as far as calling even Augustine’s City of God an utopia, with God as the supreme lawgiver on top, but of course that opus does not describe a society of this earth but a transcendent one, a spiritual world beyond space and time; therefore, strictly speaking, it is not an utopia.

The philosopher who actually invented the word utopia was not Plato however but St. Thomas More. In 1516 he wrote a short book titled Utopia. The word derives from ancient Greek and literally means no place; that in itself is quite revealing. Other great utopias or description of ideal societies are Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun (1602), Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1624), and last but not least Karl Marx’s Das Kapital which starts out with a vision of everyday life in the communist society, where a person might "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner". There are many others, but what all those utopias have in common is this: they all portrayed a future in which one finds a strong sense of community, where work is fulfilling and leisure is used wisely and creatively. It is that vision, independent of ideological political attachments, that is all but vanished in the 21st century. As mentioned that last exhortation of Ms. Ranke-Cormier is a case in point.

Utopia for such Machiavellian “realists” conjures up naiveté and a quixotic attitude.  The only thing that exists in the real world are the considerations of consumerism and the economy and political power, for by bread alone does man live. That statement has been put in the mouth of Karl Marx but he never proffered it. He considered the just society one that had aesthetic features in its grand design and he would have agreed with the English poet John Keats who said that “truth is beauty and beauty is truth and that is all you need to know on earth.” All this may sound heretical to confirmed ideological Marxists but I challenge them to discover for themselves that vision in Marx; they may be surprised that Marx was not a Marxist after all.  

In any case, it is the collapse of Communism that brings about Fukuyama’s “end of history.” What he means by that was basically the end of utopianism. Liberal democracy had triumphed over all other forms of government and from now on, beginning with the 21st century,  there would be no more struggles, no more history to be made. We need no Vico or any other philosopher of history to teach us that man makes history and at the same time history makes man, for in reality history is finished and done with.

This is quite philosophically intriguing because it could be argued, thus turning the table around on Fukuyama, that such an interpretation is itself utopian. The struggles go on, as one can readily see in the Middle East and other places. It means that there is much more to history than politics and the economy. Most utopias in fact put stress not so much on grandiose Machiavellian political schemes but on practical matters such as the nature of work, leisure, the structure of local communities.  Both Campanella and Bacon agree that everyone must work. When work is shared out, Campanella calculates that each person will have to work no more than four hours a day. That would leave plenty of leisure time, as well as energy to use that time wisely. As an aside, here is a morality tale: the Tainos of Puerto Rico worked only five hours a day and they were a happy community. When the Spaniards arrived on the island they forced them to work ten or more hours a day. In thirty years or so there were precious few Tainos left in Puerto Rico and the Spaniards had to resort to importing African slaves to work on their fortifications.

By reducing history to the mere question of governance and the economy, Fukuyama in effect consigns the questions about work, leisure and community to the dustbin of history. In fact, the issue of work and leisure may be more difficult to imagine and resolve than a grandiose scheme such as the "end of history," as even our myopic politicians are fast finding out as the good old ways of managing an economy come crashing down on them.  

Indeed, the rationale Fukuyama adduces for the “end of history” is that visions can be politically toxic in the hands of brutal dictators who will get busy writing “red books” or “green books” or “Atlas Shrugged” or other such social schemes and subsume everything, including human life, to a totalitarian scheme. Marx's dream can easily became a nightmare for millions, Machiavelli’s  “the end justifies the means” notwithstanding. In the 90s, all ideas of radical social transformation came to be regarded with suspicion. After all had we not just witnessed another utopia put into practice: the genocide of Pol Pot? With the 18th century luminaries of the so called “Enlightenment” Fukuyama was proclaiming that humanity had finally grown up, and left adolescent fantasies such as utopias behind. The Ubermensch of Nietzsche or “the new man” of Marx had finally arrived while at the same time one condemned ideologies of all stripes. It was like having the cake and eating it too. Utopia had finally arrived but we shall not call it utopia; we shall call it “end of history.”

But Kolakowski, I submit, may have it more on target. If idealism without a dose of reality is simply naive, realism without a dash of imagination is utterly depressing, for indeed not by bread alone does man live. If this really was the end of history, it would be an awful anticlimax. Look at the way we live now, in the west. We grow up in increasingly fragmented communities, hardly speaking to the people next door, and drive to work in our self-contained cars. Each man is an island unto himself, but strangely, this “rugged individualism” is considered virtue. Socially we have a savage capitalism which proclaims the survival of the fittest with little compassion to spare for the less fortunate or the less privileged. It is called social Darwinism as advocated by the likes of Herbert Spencer, Ayn Rand and the present mean-spirited brand of Republicans of the Tea Party variety, those who now advocate socialism for the rich on Wall Street and capitalism for the poor and the middle class. We have sadly become consuming and producing automatons. We work in standardized offices and stop at the supermarket on our way home to buy production-line inferior food which we eat without any relish. Even bread is not to be relished any longer. Meanwhile the gap between the super-rich and the indigents of this world becomes wider by the day.  Despite our unprecedented wealth on both sides of the Atlantic, more people than ever before suffer from depression. This is even more evident in the so called “developed” countries of both the EU and the US.

Where is the joy and the passion? Where is the vision? I submit that those who are now protesting on Wall Street in New York and in all the major cities of the first world, may be expressing more hunger for a vision of justice than one for mere bread. In other words, they have been starved of utopia and will simply not put up with it any longer. If the west is to provide a vision and a more inspiring ideal, then it is time we devoted more thought to the questions that Plato, More, Campanella, Bacon and Marx placed at the heart their utopias; the question of our human nature and how we preserve our humanity: of how to make work more rewarding, leisure more abundant, communities more friendly and just, so that we may all live an abundant and happy life. By “the happy life” or the pursuit of happiness (what the Greeks called eudaimonia) Aristotle and the Founding Fathers of the US did not mean trips to Las Vegas and Walt Disney, nor did they mean unattainable infantile fantasies but a flourishing fulfilled life lived to the maximum of one’s potential and nature. They would most probably exhort us to be more imaginative and bring in the vision and the utopia once again, for “without vision the people perish” (Proverb 29: 18).

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Prod. Griffin, PH.D.2011-10-24 19:15:00
A very good and interesting discussion, In your way, the thinking is very much in tune with the 2002 Pulitzer Prize book by Prof. Louis Menand (CUNY), "The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America."
I like the social interpretations of Kantian thought. They make a good prolegomena to Kant's more technical innovations.

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