Friday, August 24, 2012


I finished Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction by Lyman Tower Sargent yesterday. It's quite compressed, but interesting.

There are two traditions or views of the good life associated with utopias, he says. Perhaps the oldest are Utopias of escape, or body Utopias, which are

focused on pleasure, and bodily pleasure in particular,with plenty of food and drink at its center, with, in done versions, readily available sex. The other focuses on social organization.

That second type is what we now more usually associate with Utopias.

The first is fantasy and is brought onto being by Nature, God, or the gods: the second is presented realistically and is brought about by human beings using their intelligence. Both versions are ancient and both continue today. For some, only the second qualifies as a utopia, but others see the first as an important current in the river that is utopia. P10-12

I think the first type is interesting, because i've been puzzled that the first glimmers of abundance, in the sixties, led straight to flower power, free love and the counterculture. The Age of Aquarius appeared as if from nowhere out of previous 1950s conservatism. Part of the explanation was probably technological, especially the pill. But part of it must be that much older stream of thinking, the first type, that reaches back to the ancient world and beyond - Arcadia, Peach-blossom spring, Cockaigne, a land of plenty and ease, with no toil or war.

It wasn't something new. It was a very old dream with little or no intellectual intent or thought. The Sixites went straight to Cockaigne.

Sargent looks at many other aspects of utopia, including intentional communities like communes or monasteries. Many think that Utopias are generally tied up with some idea of common ownership, he says, but they range across the political spectrum and different cultures.

That said, much of our modern idea of utopia has Christian roots, he argues. Indeed, I think that like so many aspects of political thought, Sir Thomas More's Utopia was not the first utopian literature so much as when the religious tradition crossed over and got expressed in secular terms.

Interestingly, dystopias have been dominant in twentieth century, he notes, perhaps a reaction to world war and the failure of earlier hopes.

One dilemma is fascinating. Do you need a Better society or better people?

A central issue for utopia is whether a better social order allows people to become better or better people create a better social order...The better social order allowing for better people is the classic utopian model and is the focus of most of the attacks by the opponents of Utopianism... Where better people are expected to create the better social order, the problem of where these people will come from is most often solved by religion, and a common theme of Christian utopias is that people practice what Christ taught and, in doing do, bring about a better world. p111-112

I would incline more towards the better people side, given my interest in the older virtue ethics tradition. Institutions can help, of course, like law and checks and balances. But there are any number of countries where pristine constitutions guaranteeing all sorts of rights are ignored, because it has no roots in popular culture or attitudes.

It's difficult to completely separate the two, of course. But we've had a century or more of emphasis on univeralized rules and social prescriptions. And we have divorce and drug problems and meth and TMZ.

One other point which I hadn't come across is Karl Mannheim's book Ideology and Utopia, which was immensely influential in late 1920s Germany.

He called the beliefs of those in power ideology and the beliefs of those who hoped to overturn the system utopia. In both cases, their beliefs hide or masked the reality of their positions. Ideology kept those in power from becoming aware of any weaknesses in their position; utopia kept those out of power from being aware of the difficulties of changing the system. And both kept the believers from seeing the strengths in the other's position. P120

I find this interesting because I am so intrigued by people's blind spots and failure to see aspects of situations. Maybe I will have to read it some time.

Finally, utopia comes down to hope and the failure of hope. Most Utopias fail. Sargent concludes:

This almost inevitable dialectic of hope, failure or at least partial failure, despondency and the rejection of hope, followed in time by the renewal of hope, seems to be the basic pattern of social change, and is, perhaps, the actual logic of utopia, combining, as it does, parts of both previous logics. This dialectic is part of our humanity. Utopia is a tragic vision of a life of hope, but one that is always realized and always fails. We can hope, fail and hope again. We can live with repeated failure and still improve the societies we build. P127


Some people have an almost cult-like form of hope to the exclusion of present reality. Thinking through what's meant by "hope" could explain a lot of our current politics. Perhaps we have actually lost hope in many forms of politics, which is why we have least-common- denominator coexistence liberalism. Perhaps abundance could lead to renewal of hope.


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