Sunday, December 30, 2018

Thinking About Utopia

John Horgan, one of my favorite science writers, has a very interesting piece on his Scientific American blog about the different visions of utopia held by various scientists and thinkers he interviewed, including some quite well-known ones As Horgan puts it:
"Unless you are too stoned or enlightened to care, you are probably dissatisfied with the world as it is. In that case, you should have a vision of the world as you would like it to be. This better world is your utopia. That, at any rate, is the premise of a question I’ve been asking scientists and other thinkers lately: What’s your utopia?"
After the various answers he gets, he provides his own:
"As I argue in Mind-Body Problems, my free, online book, many of us are already living in pretty good utopias, democracies that give us unprecedented freedom to be who we want to be. But things could be—will be!--a lot better. We will recognize how stupid and wrong war is and end it once and for all. With the money we save from demilitarizing we will end poverty, too, improve education and health care for all, and solve the conundrum of climate change. And we will keep giving ourselves more freedom, more choices. Our children and their children will find new ways to be human, to live good, meaningful lives, ways we can’t even imagine now. This weird, wonderful human adventure will never, ever end."
I share his optimism, at least in a big picture, long term sense. I also have some more thoughts on this subject--about why the concept of utopia is still important and how the left can, as it were, get back in the game.
The 20th century was a difficult century for the utopian vision. The Communist revolutions in Russia and China were supposed to usher in egalitarian utopias where all social needs were met by benevolent state planning. Instead these Communist revolutions produced brutal authoritarian regimes where privileged bureaucracies ruled over the masses and lagged far behind the advanced West in meeting social needs.
In the advanced West, social democrats pursued a gentler utopian ideal that envisioned an egalitarian society of abundance with social control of the economy and enhanced democracy in the workplace and throughout society. But the welfare state model ran into troubles starting in the 1970’s as economic growth slowed and the inefficiencies of the system became ripe targets for conservative political forces. Support for the socialist ideal began to falter and the coup de grace was administered by the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Europe states. Societies that had called themselves socialist turned their backs on the idea and embraced capitalism with gusto. Even Western European parties that still called themselves socialist abandoned any pretence that they were seeking to create an actual socialist society.
In America, there was also a utopian impulse though it had its roots in more diffuse political traditions of liberalism and progressive reform. The idea here was that society could gradually perfect itself through a process of continuous reform that would weed out injustice and deliver prosperity for all. That idea came to a head with the Great Society of the 1960’s but sputtered out soon thereafter, battered first by counter-cultural and political radicalism and then by a nascent conservatism fueled, as in Europe, by economic problems that exposed underlying governmental inefficiencies. Over time, the liberal movement backed far away from the Great Society and its expansive vision of social justice and became resolutely focused on maintaining American social programs or, at best, their modest expansion.
Counter-cultural and political radicalism had their own utopian impulse of course. Visions of society ranging from participatory democracy (SDS) to communal bliss (hippies) to endless Marxist-Leninist revolution (Maoists) danced in the heads of young radicals in the 1960’s. But such hubris did not survive the grimmer atmosphere of the 1970’s not to mention the pressures of the life-cycle as these young radicals entered their thirties and forties.
As the Left’s utopian dreams faded, surging conservatives attacked vigorously. They argued that all of the left’s failings and especially their visions of a future society were attributable to their fundamentally unrealistic beliefs about human nature. People were selfish and acquisitive not cooperative and solidaristic as the Left mistakenly believed. Therefore, the vision of society we should all strive for is a society without government and taxes where selfishness would be unleashed and individuals could shape their own destiny free of the oppressive hand of the state. This Ayn Rand-style libertarian utopia became an inspiration to legions of conservative activists.
There are still some true believers left in this utopia left—some, indeed, hold elected office. But their dream of a perfectly unregulated capitalism has little mass appeal in our post-financial crisis world and will have less as the economy improves. The ideas underlying their vision of utopia have been tried and found wanting; their lease on utopia is up.
But the idea of utopia can and should live on. Utopia is fundamentally an expression of humanity's ability to dream of a better world. It provides—or should provide--inspiration to those seeking social change, providing a model for the society they seek to create. Without that inspiration, it is more difficult to sustain long-term commitment to substantial change, which inevitably saps energy from reform efforts. Reform, after all, is about taking steps to reach goals; a utopian vision helps you decide what those goals should be. Lacking robust goals, we have been experiencing a "sticky" status quo at the very time when large-scale change is necessary to deal with problems like climate change, slow growth, economic polarization and financial instability.
But things don't have to be this way. We are better situated than ever before to pursue a utopian dream that is reasonable and realistic and won't degenerate into authoritarianism or economic collapse.
So where is the new utopian vision to inspire today’s left and its emerging postindustrial coalition? The first task will be to reawaken hope in the future by rejecting the limits and assumptions of the current debate.
The key limit is not that today's left still embraces a socialist or (in America) a “Great Society” utopia as a concrete goal. It is rather that they have given up on end goals altogether. It is as if these old utopias are the only ones the left could ever aspire to and, since these goals are no longer feasible or desirable, the left must do without. This leads to the uninspiring vision of a society that is, at best, a little bit better than the one we have today. Hardly the stuff of dreams and movements.
Moreover, the left finds itself drawn to an idealized past, since it now lacks a vision of a fundamentally better future. This generally takes the form of touting the Golden Age of the postwar welfare state, roughly the 1946-1973 period, as some sort of model for society. It is true that wages and incomes rose much faster in that period than since, that there was far less economic inequality, that unions were much stronger and that basic institutions of the welfare state were not only safeguarded but expanded. But as utopia, that's pretty weak beer. And there is the inconvenient fact that this so-called Golden Age was not so golden for blacks, women, gays and other outsiders. (Ironically, it is this aspect of the Golden Age--a stable, traditional social order--that is recalled with fondness by many on the right and held up on their side as a sort of model.)
Linked to this backward-looking viewpoint is a continued failure to grasp that the traditional working class--the bulwark of the postwar welfare state--is no longer the leading force for progress. Their place has been taken by a diverse modernizing coalition that has quite a different sensibility than the traditional working class and who are quite unmoved by appeals to an idealized past of happy workers with steadily rising living standards.
What would inspire them is quite different and it is here that the left will have to plough new ground. It will embrace new findings on human nature and economics as providing the basis for an expansive vision of humanity’s future. And it will reject the pessimistic view of progress, so popular among today’s left, which confuses current problems with long-term trends. It is true, as we have seen, that rising inequality in the US and other countries has limited the benefits of economic growth, as well as slowing that growth. It is also true that globalization has produced its share of losers in the US and that globally many nations are still mired in poverty. And it is certainly true that world economic progress has brought with it serious climate problems. But economic growth and globalization as long term trends are still far more beneficial than harmful, a fact which resonates with this emerging coalition, even if it no longer does so with the traditional working class.
It is hard to think about all this with Trump still in office and all the various threats the world faces today. But I do think it's necessary. If you don't know where you're going, as Yogi Berra put it, you wind up someplace else.
About this website
Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, Martin Rees and others answer the question: What’s your utopia?

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