In recent posts, we rejected apocalyptic thinking for its tendency to play on fantasies of destruction, as well as for encouraging polarization and an “us vs. them” mentality. But another futurist vision perhaps should be considered — namely, utopia, the ideal society.
You might think it’s the reverse of apocalypse, the flip side of a negative vision. But looking more closely, we see it’s a different phenomenon. Utopia doesn’t require a disruptive collapse. And, although some apocalypses might prophesy a utopia at the other end (with the saved remnant or a new race), the two aren’t necessarily connected. Utopia can emerge gradually and grow toward perfection. Moreover, utopia doesn’t necessarily divide humanity into good and evil parts; it can be inclusive.
Yet oddly, the attempt to put utopian thinking into action often had destructive results.
In a recent essay, “A Utopia for a Dystopian Age,” political philosopher Espen Hammer, summarizes the modern history of utopian thinking. He says there have been three main types of utopia — utopias of desire (pleasure), of technology (ease), and of justice (socioeconomic equality). All of them inspired new social programs and planning, but also demonstrated serious weaknesses.
The utopias of desire make little sense in a world overrun by cheap entertainment, unbridled consumerism and narcissistic behavior. The utopias of technology are less impressive than ever now that — after Hiroshima and Chernobyl — we are fully aware of the destructive potential of technology. Even the internet, perhaps the most recent candidate for technological optimism, turns out to have a number of potentially disastrous consequences, among them a widespread disregard for truth and objectivity, as well as an immense increase in the capacity for surveillance. The utopias of justice seem largely to have been eviscerated by 20th-century totalitarianism. . . .
The great irony of all forms of utopianism can hardly escape us. They say one thing, but when we attempt to realize them they seem to imply something entirely different. Their demand for perfection in all things human is often pitched at such a high level that they come across as aggressive and ultimately destructive. Their rejection of the past, and of established practice, is subject to its own logic of brutality.
I would add that another type of utopia has been tried, namely the spiritual or moral utopia, guided by either religious inspiration or an overriding value such as “Love” or “Enlightenment.” The nineteenth century saw the emergence of many such communities founded either by a charismatic leader, such as the Shakers, and/or by a group adhering to higher principles, such as the Transcendentalists’ “Brook Farm” or Theosophist communities. Most of these did not survive beyond the 1920s. They demanded a high order of behavior and most believed in the perfectibility of humanity.
Interestingly, unlike the secular utopias, most did not become outwardly aggressive (perhaps because they lacked the machinery of state; perhaps because they believed in voluntary adherence). Most failed for economic reasons or the normal processes of social groups — their ideals did not appeal to new generations, their leadership weakened, etc. A few adapted sufficiently to survive, for example as religious denominations such as the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).
Utopias of justice are, we should note, also moral utopias, focusing specifically on socioeconomic issues. One that did not become totalitarian was the kibbutz movement in Israel, inspired by socialist ideas, which made outstanding contributions to the development of the land and the early state. Many kibbutzim do still exist, having adjusted some of their original practices over time. But they are no longer foundational to the Israeli economy; they did not succeed in competing with capitalism.
In any case, Hammer believes that two factors are relevant to understanding the difficulties faced by utopias: one, the utopians’ demand for perfection is so high that they “come across as aggressive.” Hmm. No, the non-religious utopians of “justice” actually were aggressive; it wasn’t simply a matter of perception. Most used coercive force (such as violent revolution) to create their societies.
Another problem was their rejection of the past which had “its own logic of brutality.” This seems to mean that people resented forced change, which is probably true; but in these social experiments many people also agreed to it. I think, for example, of the anti-religious tendencies in socialism and communism in Russia, China, and Israel. Yes, they were emotionally brutal; and yet the ideology that saw religion as delusional required submission on that issue.
With regard to utopias of desire, Hammer’s issue is not so much brutality as the cheapened versions of pleasure that modern society has come to adopt. The brutality, again, is moral and aesthetic rather than physical. I would suggest that we actually achieved, through capitalism and technology, a certain utopia of desire – but as he suggests, one that unintentionally mocks our philosophers’ greater visions of human potential. We became instead a society of accumulating material things for self-gratification.
Hammer holds that only one candidate for utopia is viable today, a particular version of a utopia of desire, namely a human society that is integrated and balanced with the natural world:
That candidate is nature and the relation we have to it. . . . As the climate is rapidly changing and the species extinction rate reaches unprecedented levels, we desperately need to conceive of alternative ways of inhabiting the planet. . . . The German thinker Ernst Bloch argued that all utopias ultimately express yearning for a reconciliation with that from which one has been estranged. They tell us how to get back home. A 21st-century utopia of nature would do that.
Hammer observes that industrial and capitalist society would have to make changes to accomplish this “reconciliation.” Of course, many have been saying the same for decades, without claiming to be promoting utopia. The underlying problem is lack of willingness to change.
In reality, despite the cheap consumerism, we in the West we already possess many of the qualities of utopias of desire – healthier and longer lives, material plenitude, creative endeavors. Why should we change except for the fear that it won’t last (here we lean suspiciously toward apocalyptic)? Why should we do anything that interrupts our current pleasures, on the questionable premise that we’ll feel better if “reconciled” with nature? Utopia is always a vision toward which people strive if they feel strongly enough about it. But the idea of getting back “home,” finding that from which we have been “estranged,” doesn’t appear to be strong enough to overcome our addiction to immediate pleasure.
The mistake, as Hammer himself points out, is in the premises. Utopians wanted to find a formula that would satisfy human desires so fully that conflict would cease. The classic Utopias of desire (like Sir Thomas More’s) presumed unlimited resources, with the world always able to meet the breadth and depth of human desire. But in the real world, resources were still limited.
Enter technology. Extracting matter and energy from the natural world, we hoped to overcome the limits of our resources. Transportation and communication vastly expanded our reach. We even seemed to be able to solve the problem of scarcity by applying technology to agriculture. (Does anyone remember the apocalyptic prophecies of the 1970s that we would be starving within a generation?) Technology has done amazing things, but we now seem to be approaching intractable limits. We consider colonizing other planets, but that is even less likely to attract a genuine following than is a project of reconciling with nature.
Logically, we must conclude that utopia is possible only if desires are limited. Precisely this was recognized in religious utopias, where personal discipline was demanded, and social justice utopias also recognized the necessity of personal sacrifice for the sake of the greater whole. As Hammer well knows, virtually every social thinker in modern times recognized that a functioning society requires some individual sacrifice, at the very least through compromises and deals (in democracies) and often through giving up personal freedom (in autocracies – where, if people don’t want to limit their desires, they will be forced to do so). Of course, this seems counter-intuitive to the idea of utopia, which promises fulfillment without hardship.
I spent some time reflecting on whether any program demanding the limitation of desire has been successful on a broad scale over a long period of time. The only one I could come up with is the promotion of monogamy. One can argue that it succeeded only in the legal sense, with a multitude of private breaches. Even so, it would not have been as successful as it was, had it not been that women were generally happier with it, and it provided economic relief in that a man had to support only one woman.
Celibate communities also succeeded on a voluntary basis, in both Christianity and Buddhism. And in both cases, restriction on sexual desire was accompanied by the limitation of desire for personal property. Both of those have been historically successful, with the surrounding societies picking up part of the tab by supporting these communities through charity. Dedicated communities were seen as a moral benefit to all.
Religions in fact have been primary voices speaking out about the limitation of desire. Buddhism declared craving to be the source of suffering. Christianity put avarice, lust and gluttony among the seven deadly sins. Other religions may be less dogmatic on the issue, but all recognized the dangers of untrammeled desire and the necessity of personal discipline (for example in Judaism, the necessity of taming the “evil inclination”). Admittedly, convincing people that the dangers were greater than the pleasures required some heavy theologizing about divine punishment or other future disasters.
But we don’t need to turn to theology. We can now document that greed, jealousy and competitiveness have been the downfall of even the most promising utopian societies. We also know that restrictions on desire usually repel people, and they must be heavily persuaded or even forced to submit to limitations.
What is this problem? Animals don’t eat gluttonously, demand sex out of season, or accumulate stuff they don’t need. Indulgence and restriction have no meaning in the natural world. Yet we, as a species, seem thoroughly unwilling and unable to control our desires. And now we are at the point that if we don’t, we may see the end of civilization and even earth as we know it.
Now we’re getting to the crux of the matter. Why inordinate desires?
More to come.