Global Sustainability Newsletter

Issue 14 - January 2011

ON UTOPIAN THINKING

Many people would associate ideas of an idyllic, a much better organised and much more satisfying world, as mere utopia. Pragmatists and seriously "rational" members of the current society do not believe in any such nonsense. "It is just too difficult and not possible at all to create such a world. We did not have any success so far - there is no such possibility in the future - human kind is just too aggressive, too divided, too disorganised, if not completely chaotic!"

Societal scorn of the ideal is extended to people who entertain such ideas, and these people are often labelled: "dreamers", "utopians", "eternal optimists", "not practical", "unrealistic thinkers", and so on. Hardly anyone realises, however, that these "dreamers" have an essential role to play in the shaping of the future of any society; without them there would be no progress, no inventions and no development of humanity synchronous with the changes of Cosmic seasons and their varying spiritual prerogatives (the latter are essential matters known and conveyed by highly attuned spiritual personages). After being exposed to changing qualities of spiritual energies reaching us from the Cosmos, we come to new realisations, to new understandings and we need to adjust our lives according to those promptings.

A very pragmatic approach to the concept of utopia can be found in writings of Zygmunt Bauman, a distinguished, Polish-born sociologist, currently living in Great Britain. The following are the excerpts from Socialism: The Active Utopia (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1976), where in Chapter 1 he defends the utopian thinking as a necessary ingredient in sociological thinking and societal progress.

'Socialism descended upon nineteenth-century Europe as utopia.

This statement is bound to provoke one of two responses: either of angry protests from those who feel safer on a sturdy jeep of historical necessity that on a flying carpet of human will; or of friendly smiles from those who feel that the world we live in would be a much happier place were it never haunted by the abortive venture into equality. Both protests and smiles are - I admit - more than partly justified by the sense in which the concept of "utopia" has sedimented in the public mind. But it is not the sense in which I propose to use it.

The context in which the word "utopia" appears most often in everyday discourse is the phrase condemning an idea, a project, an expectation as a "mere utopia." The phrase marks the end, not the beginning of an argument; one can still quarrel, to be sure, whether the verdict applies to a particular case, but provided it does, further consideration of the possible merits of the idea in question will make little sense. The indictment amounts to a flip and irrevocable dismissal of the idea as a figment of unrestrained fantasy, unscientific, at odds with reality - i.e. loaded with all those features which mark off an idea as something to be kept at a safe distance from scholarly discourse.

The operation has been performed often enough to turn it into a purely perfunctory procedure, which no longer requires reference to the original justification. One can only suppose that the disrepute into which utopian thinking has fallen is that shared by magic, religion, and alchemy - all those slushy paths of errant human mind which modern science set about eliminating once and for all from the map of human action. Having been defined from the outset as an idle, unrealistic blueprint without much basis in reality, utopia was irretrievably cast among the false ideas which in fact hinder human progress by diverting human effort from the ways of reason and rationality.

The insufficiency of treating utopias as predictions which turned out to be false, or plans which failed to prove their realism, will become evident if we only agree that each moment of human history is, to a greater or a lesser degree, an open-ended situation; a situation which is not entirely determined by the structure of its own past, and from which more than one string of events may follow (not only in the subjective sense, considering the state of our knowledge, but in the objective sense as well, considering a complete knowledge of the present and the past which could have been collected and processed only if the perfect research and data-processing technology had been available). 'People', said C. Wright Mills in Sociological Imagination (Oxford University Press,1959), 'may become aware of predictions made about their activities, and accordingly they can and often do re-direct themselves; they may falsify or fulfil the predictions. Which they will do is not, as yet, subject to very good prediction. In so far as men have some degree of freedom, what they may do, will not be readily predictable.' The point which Mills made (a very radical point in a period dominated by the reified, "reacting" image of man and the behaviouristic paradigm) was that far from being just predictions, passively waiting on bookshelves to be compared with the actual course of events, they avowedly tried to foresee our statements about the future, become, from the start, active factors in shaping this future. Which way they will deflect the course of history does not depend on their content alone; it ultimately hinges, one would say, on the intrinsically unpredictable, intractable human praxis. If that is so, then the right question to ask about predictions or, more generally, visions of the future, is not whether they have been verified or falsified by subsequent events, but in which way and to what degree these events have been influenced and generated by the presence of the aforementioned visions in the public mind. Thomas Carlyle called history 'an imprisoned prophecy'; Oscar Wilde declared that 'a map of the world which does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing'; Anatole France reminded his science-intoxicated contemporaries that 'without the utopians of other times, men would still live in caves, miserable and naked.'

The radical opposition to the conservative view of culture, as reduced to learning, to the detriment of creativity, starts with an assumption that the peculiarly human mode of existence is founded on a unique phenomenon of the future, as a mode of time qualitatively distinct from the past in the sense of being not-entirely-determined and at the same time sufficiently powerful to destroy, time and again, even the thickest layer of habitual patterns. The most dramatically distinctive feature of culture is the notorious (though hotly denied by many a scientist in the name of the ultimate success of the scientific venture) human ability to decline to learn, to resist the conditioning pressure, to "make responses" to "stimuli" which are not present in any imaginable material sense. Inventiveness, originality verging on waywardness, characterise human beings at least as much as their ability to learn and their capacity for being conditioned. Some thinkers would go so far in their protest against the 'learning' image of man that they would take, with Teilhard de Chardin, a stance opposite to the one portrayed above: 'It is finally the Utopians, not the "realists", who make scientific sense. They at least, though their flights of fancy may cause us to smile, have a feeling for the true dimensions of the phenomenon of man'.

Whatever the nature of man as such, the capacity to think in a utopian way does involve the ability to break habitual associations, to emancipate oneself from the apparently overwhelming mental and physical dominance of the routine, the ordinary, the "normal." In this respect utopian thinking belongs in the same category as invention. In our civilisation, built upon the ideal of technical perfection and efficiency, invention is an entirely legitimate and, indeed, praiseworthy and prestige-bestowing endeavour; but not utopia, though it involves the same psychological structure and the same propensity for noncompliance and defiance of existing patterns.

These are the reasons why we emphatically reject the scornful view that is manifest in the "mere utopia" catchphrase. It seems that this phrase reflects more the nature of the social system in which it has become common currency than the value of utopia which it pretends to assess. I think social life cannot in fact be understood unless due attention is paid to the immense role played by utopia. Utopias share with the totality of culture the quality - to paraphrase Santayana - of a knife with the edge pressed against the future. They constantly cause the reaction of the future with the present, and thereby produce the compound known as human history.

I shall now outline the functions which have been played by utopias in general, and by modern socialism in particular, which to my mind substantiate the claim that they have a crucial and constructive role in the historical process.

  1. Utopias relativise the present. One cannot be critical about something that is believed to be an absolute. By exposing the partiality of current reality, by scanning the field of the possible in which the real occupies merely a tiny plot, utopias pave the way for a critical attitude and a critical activity which alone can transform the present predicament of man. The presence of utopia, the ability to think of alternative solutions to the festering problems of the present, may be seen therefore as a necessary condition of historical change.

    Utopias, to be sure, differ from electoral platforms and even from long-term political programmes in that they seem to be little concerned with pragmatically conceived realism. They offer the luxury of unleashing human imagination and leading it to the distant expanses which would never be reached if it were held down by the exactions of the political game. Since the meaning of logic and rationality is defined by the latter rather than by the former, 'utopias do not seem logical and immediate steps from what is in existence at present. The utopian vision, in this sense, breaks with historical continuity' (J. Gusfield in Aware of Utopia, University of Illinois Press,1971). It does not follow, however, that they are useless for the practically-minded reformers of the society. Nor does it follow that nothing but ridicule toward utopias becomes a sober mind bent on 'realistic', i.e. piecemeal, improvement of his society. The situation in which major political blocs of a nation know no better than to argue about the balance of payments and the desirable level of the bank rate signals, is in fact, a dangerous drying up of the reservoir of utopian ideas and spells trouble. It is rather the boldness of the utopian insight into the unexplored future, its ability to cut loose and be impractical, which sets the stage for a genuinely realistic politics, one which takes stock of all opportunities contained in the present. The presence of such utopian ideas and their vitality may be seen as a symptom of a society set on a perhaps turbulent, but vigorous development. The thin line which divides a genuine realism from downright conservatism disguised as soberness, runs between willingness and refusal to consider the full range of human alternatives, however fantastic they may seem from the perspective of a complacent or disenchanted common sense.
  2. Utopias are those aspects of culture (in itself a programme rather than a description of the human condition) in which the possible extrapolations of the present are explored. They seldom raise their eyes very high above the level of current reality; they are, indeed, surprisingly realistic in their drawing from the experience and the craving of their contemporaries, and in their penchant for singling out this or the other established institution as a vehicle of desired change. No epoch, said Marx, poses problems which it is unable to solve; George Sorel, adding a psychological specification to this historiosophical generalisation, remarked that when a mind puts forth an idea, it is because the idea is in the air. It can hardly be otherwise, since the utopian ideals of any generation - if the generation is lucky and free enough to possess any - are shaped, like culture in general, under the double pressure of galvanising feeling of deprivation and the chastening squeeze of omnipresent and stubborn realities.

    Utopias, so to speak, transcend the level of both theory and practice in their voluntarily modest, immediate sense. They provide answers to issues people experience as poignant; but the question they try to respond to is neither "what can I know?", which is the concern of philosophers, not "what ought I do?", which is the domain of ideologues and politicians. It is "what may I hope?", an awkward question, which Kant would perhaps declare illegitimate, since it invokes simultaneously his 'practical' and 'theoretical' reason, subordinating the second to the first, while remaining stubbornly oblivious to the incompatibility of their structures and potentials. The driving force behind the search for utopia is neither the theoretical nor the practical reason, neither the cognitive nor the moral interest, but the principle of hope; the idea very much present, though somewhat hidden, in Kant's quarrying of the mysteries of reason, but analysed in depth by Ernst Bloch. Hope supplies the missing link between practical and theoretical interests because it is intrinsically critical of the reality in which it is rooted. Again, it extends the meaning of realism to encompass the full range of possible options.
  3. Utopias split the shared reality into a series of competing projects-assessments. The reality in which utopia is rooted is not neutral toward conflicting cognitive perspectives generated by social conflicts. In so far as the society consists of groups differentiated by an unequal share of available goods as well as by unequal access to the means of social action - including the ability to act critically - all criticism of the present is inevitably committed. It may be attributed by the analyst to specific classes or strata whose grievances and cravings it represents, even though the link may be obscured by the largely haphazard social location of the author and his own supra-partisan illusions.

    Instead of constituting a class among varieties of human thinking, utopia is an integral element of the critical attitude, which always materialises in a group-specific form, representing a group experience and invariably partisan yearnings. A vision eutopian to one group may well be dystopian to another, not too novel a phenomenon for any student of social and political thought. Utopias, therefore, help to lay bare and make conspicuous the major divisions of interest within a society. They contribute to the crystallisation of major socio-political forces, thereby converting differences of status into differences of action. They scan the options open to society at the current stage of its history; but by exposing their link to the predicament of various groups, utopias reveal also their class-committed nature. In other words, utopias relativise the future into a bundle of class-committed solutions, and dispel the conservative illusion that one and only one thread leads on from the present. If the reality-protecting ideology attempts to disguise history as nature, utopias, on the contrary, unmask the historical status of alleged nature. They portray the future as a set of competing projects, and thereby reveal the role of human volition and concerted effort in shaping and bringing it out. The conservative perspective manifests itself in discussing the future in terms of "the probable"; the utopian perspective prefers to speak in terms of "the possible", even if, for the sake of expediency, it chooses to hide behind the mask of "the inevitable". The conservative perspective is backed by the ubiquitous power of habit and routine; in order to unleash the self-emancipating effort of those who can expect nothing but a rough deal from an extrapolation of the present, utopias are bound to embark on the hazardous venture of depicting the group-committed ideals, as embodied in the viable and complete social system, with a degree of verisimilitude which can easily be held against them by a scientific purist. But this allegedly unwarranted fantasy is the only tool with which to make up for the handicapped position of an idea which dares to challenge the twin powers of routine behaviour and common-sensical knowledge. The dominant definitions of realism tend to be cut to the measure of dominant interests; they are meant to defend their dominance by defending the habitual and the "normal." Utopias weaken the defensive walls of habit, thus preparing their destruction by a dramatic thrust of condensed dissent, or their gradual erosion by the vitriolic solution of utopian ideas.
  4. Utopias do exert enormous influence on the actual course of historical events. Sometimes they are so promptly incorporated into political practice (as was the case with Harrington's Oceania and the American Constitution laid down by his admirers) that there is hardly time for the glue to dry under their utopian label; sometimes they are decreed to have been brought into reality and then they imperceptibly merge into conservative ideologies. But in most cases they just linger in the public mind as guides for social action, as criteria marking off the good from the evil, and as obstinate reminders of the never-plugged gap between the promise and the reality, too slow to catch up with its own constitutive ideals. In this triple role utopias enter reality not as the aberrations of deranged intellects, but as powerful factors acting from within what is the only substance of reality, motivated human action.

    This "activating presence" of utopia in human action is also the only way in which the content of the utopia may be put to a practical test and examined for its degree of "realism." There is no method which allows us to establish in advance the "truth" or "untruth" of utopia, for the simple reason that the fate of utopia, which hinges in a considerable measure on the occurrence of an appropriately massive social effort, is not determined in advance. Any inventory of supporting and hindering factors is bound to be incomplete without the decisive, yet unpredictable, constituent of an adequate human action. Therefore the "realism" or "practicability" of a utopia may be discovered (or, more appropriately, secured) only in the course of action. By summoning such action utopia sets in motion the forces which may bring it to pass; declaring its programme as "utopian" in the lowly sense we discussed at the outset appears in this light as one of the means by which this "practical verification" of utopia can be prevented.

To sum up, one can define utopia - in the sense in which it will be used in this study - as an image of a future and better world, which is:

  1. felt as still unfulfilled and requiring an additional effort to be brought about;
  2. perceived as desirable, as a world not so much bound to come as one which should come;
  3. critical of the existing society; in fact a system of ideas remains utopian and thus able to boost human activity only in so far as it is perceived as representing a system essentially different from, if not antithetical to, the existing one;
  4. involving a measure of hazard; for an image of the future to possess the qualities of utopia, it must be ascertained that it will not come to pass unless fostered by a deliberate collective action.'

Danuta Nowak