Thursday, January 11, 2007

The pursuit of the millennium

Fred Halliday has drawn up a New Year's list of the world's worst ideas. Much to agree with, some to disagree with. I thought number six was both interesting and particularly problematic:
"In the modern world, we do not need utopias."
To which Halliday responds:
"Dreaming, the aspiration to a better world and the imagination thereof, is a necessary part of the human condition."
It has often occurred to me that it is a paradox of the human condition that consciousness by its very nature allows human beings to 'imagine a better world' and it is this that is essential for anything we might describe as progress in human affairs. But at the same time, those who seek to reach beyond mere dreams and make them a reality are predestined to be disappointed, or worse.

The scale of the disappointment depends on the nature of what is imagined and it's here I have a problem with the use of the term 'utopia' because by most people's definition this has something to do with perfection, rather than with a state of affairs that is merely better than what presently exists.

Arguably the capacity to imagine, to simply say 'things could be otherwise', is the very basis of human morality and in that sense it is indeed an absolutely essential facet of the human condition.

But this is surely a different matter altogether to imagine a human state of affairs that could achieve perfection and it is surely more contentious to suggest that this is in any way essential to the human condition or even if it were, to say with any degree of certainty that this has been a net benefit to mankind?

Isaiah Berlin argued that in human history, no single idea has been responsible for a higher pile of corpses than the notion that there is a final solution - that all [legitimate] human wants and desires can be fitted into a single harmonious pattern.

In the same vein Milan Kundera said that "there is always a gulag built onto the side of paradise", this not being a regrettable lapse from the pursuit of perfection but rather something that was intrinsic to it.

Both had in mind the totalitarian experiments of the 20th century and their religious parents, the various political attempts throughout the ages to achieve the entire sanctification of the mundane and bring the City of God to earth.

Surely this should at least be considered as a contender to be among mankind's worst ideas? Not least because it has endured and is still with us today. Essential to the human condition, perhaps. But desirable? No.


Anonymous said...

I think there is an adage which goes "perfect is the enemy of good". In other words the fruitless quest for utopia actually prevents the improvement of society, because small incremental steps towards a better condition are always rejected by utopians as being not "perfect", therefore not worth pursuing.

Also the quest for utopia, whether it is expressed as a racially pure country, an Islamic caliphate or a country without trade unions (Thatcher's personal utopia) is almost always pursued by violent or destructive means (gaschambers, terrorism, mass unemployment and destruction of communities). And if they get their utopia, such as communism, well surprise, surprise, it turns out to be anything but utopian for most of the population and the savage repression of dissenters kicks in.

Personally I am a pragmatist of the one step forward, two steps back variety, I loathe utopians. In fact my personal utopia would be the removal of all utopians to some horrible unpleasant gulag somewhere.

Anonymous said...

bah humbug!

dearieme said...

That's my conclusion too, Shuggy.

Will said...


Shuggy said...


The Editor said...

There's always a Mad Axe-man or some other malcontent or just some one with a screws loose. They come along and ruin anything, so as soon as you have mechanisms in place to deal with them, what have you got? Laws, Police, Judges, prisons, and failures of such etc anyway something less than perfection. Can't we just keep muddling along? there;s alwayd scope for improvement as you say.

Anonymous said...

I left this comment at Comrade Pootergeek's place as well. This is why.

We should Unashamedly Embrace Utopia

We should be, without hesitation or embarrassment, utopians. At the end of the twentieth century it is the only acceptable political option, morally speaking. I shall not dwell on this. I will merely say that, irrespective of what may have seemed apt hitherto either inside or outside the Marxist tradition, nothing but a utopian goal will now suffice. The realities of our time are morally intolerable. Within the constricted scope of the present piece, I suppose I might try to evoke a little at least of what I am referring to here, with some statistics or an imagery of poverty, destitution and other contemporary calamities- But I do not intend to do even this much. The facts of widespread human privation and those of political oppression and atrocity are available to all who want them. They are unavoidable unless you wilfully shut them out. To those who would suggest that things might be yet worse, one answer is that of course they might be. But another answer is that for too many people they are already quite bad enough; and the sponsors of this type of suggestion are for their part almost always pretty comfortable.

There is more than one sort of utopian and more than one sort of anti-utopian. Those who tend to be most seduced by utopias, *and* more repressive of utopias are not the people that offer a bold vision of a future remade but those that seek to impose a fictitious past on a reluctant present i.e. they are reactionaries.

Shuggy said...

I'm reading the whole thing now - I'll get back to it. But...

At the end of the twentieth century it is the only acceptable political option, morally speaking.

...that's bollocks for a start...

Shuggy said...

The aim of a minimum utopia is, then, anti-capitalist, but in so far as there are tenets of liberalism not indissolubly bound up with capitalism it should not be anti-liberal.

Heh - you wouldn't have liked that bit, Will? ;-)

Anonymous said...

Me liking it would be neither here nor there. Whether it's true or false is independent of my subjectivity.

But you knew that.

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