The case for minor utopias

The 20th century showed how dangerous utopian ideas can be. Does that mean we should follow John Gray and abandon all political idealism? Or is a more modest strain of visionary thinking—with human rights at its foundation—still possible?
July 27, 2007
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In June 2002, President Bush delivered a speech to the US Military Academy at West Point that marked the beginning of the road to war with Iraq. The speech is remembered for Bush's unveiling of his doctrine of pre-emptive self-defence, but alongside this principle Bush also gave a statement of America's guiding values, designed to prove that US power need not be feared. "America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish," Bush told his audience. "We wish for others only what we wish for ourselves—safety from violence, the rewards of liberty, and the hope for a better life."

The idea of utopia was invoked again in the Bush administration's national security strategy, published a few months after the West Point address. The central theme of this document, intended to present a definitive statement of US foreign policy, was that America would seek "a balance of power that favours freedom." The report said that America had joined battle during the 20th century with totalitarian regimes based on "militant visions of class, nation and race which promised utopia and delivered misery." Now facing a terrorist threat—which the administration would soon characterise as a new form of totalitarianism—the US, the report continued, could use its pre-eminent position in the world to usher in "decades of peace, prosperity and liberty." The aim of American strategy, in short, was "to help make the world not just safer but better."

One reaction to this rhetoric is to wonder how anyone can, with a straight face, decry the deadly consequences of utopianism while promising to build an era of universal peace and freedom. Now that we know the full scale of the debacle that Bush's invasion of Iraq produced, it is hard not to see it as a natural consequence of such a failure of self-awareness. The collision of idealism and devastation in Bush's Iraq policy raises in a new form a series of questions about politics and social engineering whose roots reach back through the fall of the Soviet Union to the earlier upheavals of the 20th century. After Auschwitz and the gulag, after the killing fields of Cambodia and the cultural revolution, must we reject all transformative political and social projects as inherently destructive? Is it right to see the neoconservative project of exporting democracy as itself utopian, sharing some kind of essential flaw with other utopian projects, despite the obvious differences? Is there still a place for a politics of visionary or universalist idealism, somehow shorn of the grandiosity and callousness that led to so much death? Or are movements based on such an outlook always doomed to fail?

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Utopias, in the form of imaginary constructions of an ideal society, go back to the beginning of political theory in the west. Plato's Republic is the best known example. For most of the history of the form, utopian writing aimed to depict a perfect society, abstracted from historical and geographical contingency, as an oblique and imaginative form of social criticism. Implicit in Thomas More's coinage of the term "utopia" (meaning "no place") is the idea that the society described is not of this world. It does not represent a blueprint for political action, but a conceptual vantage point from which abstract principles can be derived and the shortcomings of one's own society observed. The modern use of the term "utopian" as a synonym for "impossibly unrealistic" would not have been taken as a criticism by most utopian writers. As John Gray writes in his new book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (Allen Lane), their visions of perfect societies were "imagined as being situated in an irrecoverable past or else in distant places not recorded on any map."

At the end of the 18th century, this changed. The French revolution was the catalyst, embodying the idea that an ideal society could actually be realised through human effort. The revolutionary leader Louis de Saint-Just famously declared in 1792 that "happiness is a new idea in Europe." Yet Saint-Just was also to become a ruthless member of the committee of public safety that supervised the Terror. He justified the revolutionary government's arbitrary and brutal measures on the grounds that "everything must be allowed to those who are headed in the same direction as the revolution," and also argued that "in a time of innovation, everything that is not new is pernicious." Taken together, these statements from the dawn of the era of political utopianism in Europe capture the grandeur and horror that have characterised large-scale transformative ideological projects ever since.

Not all attempts to construct utopias have been bloody. During the 19th century, many utopians tried to create perfect societies in small settlements, often in the "new world" of the US. In Gray's words, most of these were "opposed to common human inclinations and infected with the eccentricities of their founders," and quickly faded away. The real harm came in the 20th century, when utopians abandoned the idea of withdrawing from the world and instead attempted to remake it.

Following Isaiah Berlin, Gray identifies the essential feature of utopias as their belief in ultimate harmony. Their guiding inspiration is that conflict and coercion can be finessed away by a correct reordering of society: "Clashes of interest among individuals and social groups, antagonism between and within ideals of the good life, choices among evils—these conflicts, which are endemic in every society, are reduced to insignificance." But this same impulse accounts for the essential unreality of utopias, which cannot fulfil their objectives without attempting to remake human nature, or eliminate groups within society that are seen as agents of corruption or reaction.

To argue that utopian impulses underpinned the totalitarian regimes of the last 100 years is not in itself unusual, and Gray is surely exaggerating when he writes that "today as in the 20th century the dangers of utopianism are denied." But the real interest of his book lies in a series of more ambitious arguments. Gray suggests that the utopian instinct in modern politics, which has presented itself in secular and often explicitly anti-religious form, must be understood as a kind of sublimated religious impulse. There is a direct line of continuity between millenarian religious thought, which posits an end-time when all evil will be cleansed from the world, and political visions like Marxism that claim to solve the riddle of history. Secular visionary movements ostensibly based on scientific arguments should in fact be seen as myths that acquire their power by meeting the human need for meaning, which had previously been answered by religion. In the end, Gray argues, all utopias are an expression of faith rather than reason, because there is no rational basis for the idea that man can radically transform his condition. There is continuity, too, between the bloodletting that often accompanied medieval and early modern millenarianism and the political violence of the modern west, which "can only be understood as an eschatological phenomenon."

In previous books, Gray has established himself as a fierce critic of contemporary free-market policies, and here he builds on his earlier arguments by tracing the way utopian thinking has taken over the Anglo-American political right. Margaret Thatcher's adoption of neoliberalism marks, for Gray, the moment when the right abandoned a philosophy that aimed merely at coping with the fact of human imperfection. Thatcher thought that releasing market forces in Britain and around the world would bring economic prosperity and moral reconstruction based around "Victorian values," but this hope was utopian and self-contradictory. The idea that the free market was the right system for all societies was based on a utopian vision of modernisation, and has produced a backlash in many countries.

Gray's greatest scorn in Black Mass is reserved for neoconservatism, and the invasion of Iraq to which it led. After 9/11, President Bush proclaimed a campaign that had explicitly millennial overtones—to rid the world of evil. Christian fundamentalists in America joined with neoconservatives who believed democracy could be established around the world by force. Blinded by their own illusions, the architects of the Iraq war failed to see what should have been obvious, that "what is feasible on the banks of the Danube may not be possible on the Euphrates"—especially not in a matter of months. Tony Blair, too, subscribed to a militant view of human progress that believed "in the power of force to ensure the triumph of the good" and that sanctioned the use of deception because it knew history was on its side.

Gray writes with a rare degree of literary and psychological sensitivity, and brings to his discussion of utopianism a sweeping vision that at its best can pick out underlying trends and paradoxes with great insight. But this same quality leads him to blur important differences between the ideas and movements he describes. Religious and secular visions of social transformation diverge significantly in the criteria to which they appeal for justification. Religious visions are based on appeals to an unseen order that must be taken on faith, while secular utopias must sooner or later justify themselves in the world as it is, and are therefore more easily falsifiable. But in a way, this point is tangential to Gray's real aim, which is to look not so much at the form that utopian thinking takes as at the temperament that lies behind it. Black Mass is, at core, a work of political criticism as psychoanalysis, which aims to weaken the hold of utopian thinking on western culture by exposing its irrational foundations. By accepting the presence of a thirst for meaning and harmony in ourselves and those around us, Gray believes, we will be better able to resist the siren call of utopian political movements.

Still, it is fanciful to suggest, as Gray appears to, that the policies of Thatcher, Blair or Bush are directly comparable to the totalitarian movements of the middle of last century. In addition, Gray's account of the lead-up to war in Iraq seems to me to overstate the part played by neoconservative thinking. Many of those within the administration who backed the invasion, particularly the faction gathered around Dick Cheney, cared little about universal ideas of democracy and were mainly concerned to remove a foreign leader who had thumbed his nose at the US. Gray's claim that Blair viewed political lies as "prophetic glimpses of the future course of history" is overheated. But he is very convincing when he argues that all these leaders, in different ways and degrees, displayed a form of utopianism.

After the debacle of Iraq, Gray calls for a return to realism. The world faces the new threat of terrorist movements fuelled by apocalyptic religious beliefs, against a background of increasing resource competition and possible environmental collapse. The best response would be based not on missionary or crusading zeal, but on stoical determination and intellectual detachment. This is an appealing notion: the leaders of America and Britain desperately need to be more level-headed after the excesses of recent years. But it does not follow that the spirit of realism would provide a satisfactory basis for our countries' long-term engagement with the world. Nor is it the case that all forms of idealistic or progressive politics must succumb to the same utopian pitfalls.

If realism is a necessary corrective to utopian idealism, it is equally true that unchecked realism is likely to lead to a narrowing of political possibility. Without some appeal to universal values, there is no standpoint to challenge unjust practices that are widely taken for granted. To take two examples from the Enlightenment era, the slave trade would not have been abolished when it was, nor the use of torture banned in criminal investigations, if William Wilberforce, Cesare Beccaria and their followers had not clung to grand visions of human advance. Gray discusses the abolition of the slave trade, saying that it was not a utopian project because it was not inherently unrealisable. But there is a middle ground between utopian projects that are clearly impossible to achieve and a realism that strives only to palliate the inevitable harms of an imperfect world. This middle ground, as it was mapped out by successive generations of idealists during the 20th century, is the subject of a recent book by the cultural historian Jay Winter, Dreams of Peace and Freedom (Yale).

Winter's book has the subtitle Utopian Moments in the Twentieth Century, but he is not interested in the totalitarian regimes that are most commonly associated with the term "utopia." Instead, he wants to resurrect a more modest strand of visionary thought that propounded what he calls "minor utopias," as opposed to the "major utopias" that involved wholesale killing. He describes these as visions of partial transformation that "sketch out a world very different from the one we live in, but from which not all social conflict or all oppression has been eliminated." Winter's book is a perfect counterpoint to Gray's because he asserts precisely what Gray denies: that there is something innately valuable in the visionary tradition of political thought that can be isolated from the worst extremes of utopian criminality.

The movements that Winter explores span the 20th century and fall neatly into two groups, divided by the second world war. In the first part of the century, his chosen thinkers outlined transformative projects that were based around nation or social class and aimed above all at securing peace. Woodrow Wilson's "self-determination" ideal was one example. Others, now less remembered, sought to fend off war by spreading international understanding through photography, or through the mobilisation of socialist parties around the world, or through the ideal of scientific progress. All these projects were, of course, failures. After 1945, Winter argues, visionary projects had more limited goals, and tended to be based on "de-centred" notions of individual rights or civil society. Among these were the human rights movement, liberation theology, the student uprisings of 1968, campaigns for the environment, women's rights and international justice. Although Winter admits that these movements have had limited success, some of them continue to shape the world in which we live.

Winter is more interested in the intellectual roots of his minor utopian projects than the reasons for their ultimate failure or success. He approaches these movements as a window on to the aspirations of the eras from which they sprang. The result is an episodic inner history of the visionary spirit during the last century, though it is striking that Winter is only interested in left-wing or pacifist goals. The free-market movement does not figure in his account, though it might qualify as one of his "minor utopias."

Winter discusses the human rights movement only briefly, with an interesting analysis of the role of the French lawyer René Cassin in drafting the 1948 universal declaration of human rights. Winter sees the declaration as a "dark utopia," which sprang from a time of catastrophe yet was strong enough to transcend it. It is possible to build on this idea in a way that makes the concept of human rights the fulcrum of the story that Winter wants to tell. The idea of human rights is an anti-utopian utopia. It is a universal ideal which at the same time sets limits on what can be done in the name of universal ideals. Human rights remain far from being observed around the world, but they provide the only absolute standard by which oppressive authorities can ultimately be called to account.

John Gray has few good words to say about human rights. He writes that the vision of a world in which they are universally respected is unreal. He also thinks that a liberal, human rights-based foreign policy will founder on the inevitable conflict between liberal values. But liberals do not expect human rights to resolve all the tensions of international politics. Nor is there anything inherent in the doctrine of human rights that requires that they should be enforced through arms. You do not have to believe in the inevitable march of progress to see fundamental human rights as defining the limits of what any government can legitimately do to its people.

In response to the potential excesses of utopian politics, two forms of opposition can be imagined. One, which Gray endorses, is an opposition of temperament. It proposes a sceptical outlook, alert to the dangers of radical political transformation. This viewpoint is a corrective to the further reaches of self-deception that can (as Jay Winter acknowledges) affect all movements that claim to speak on behalf of humanity or rights. But such a sceptical outlook also risks closing off the prospect of any serious transformation of political circumstances, and without this hope even moderate reforms may not gain traction. Moreover, the realist can make no substantive intellectual argument against utopian movements, beyond trying to persuade them to look more closely at the likely effects of their actions.

The second form of opposition is an intellectual opposition that engages with utopian movements on their own terms, by challenging the values they appeal to. Against the neoconservative goal of militant democratisation, it asserts the importance of international law. To the totalitarian regime that deports or kills minorities, it says that human dignity and the right to life are inviolable. The preservation of the natural environment, too, might be an abstract value it appeals to. The point about such opposition is that it does not avoid the language of political idealism, but invokes a different set of ideals. Ultimately, both forms of opposition are necessary counterweights to the abuse of power in the name of an ideal world. Neither on its own is sufficient.

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