Utopia!

Charles Stross demands better aspirational fictions:

“We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.”

Maurice Hamington suggests that aspirational fictions guide the moral imagination:

Twenty-four hundred years ago, Plato asked us to imagine a political system where philosophers rule. As part of the social gospel movement in the early twentieth century, Walter Rauschenbusch asked us to imagine a Christian society where social service was the moral imperative. At about the same time, Jane Addams, the leading spokesperson for the settlement movement asked us to imagine a social organization where difference is marked not by oppression but by interactive engagement. Fifty years ago during the height of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King asked us to imagine a society where race is no longer a source of judgment. In each case, a utopian vision of a better society relies on engaging the imagination to see the moral possibilities.

Erin McKenna reminds us what gave utopia a bad name:

The end-state model of utopia has certain problematic assumptions and implications. Such visions focus on a final desired end-state without questioning the value of the means involved in achieving the desired state; by gaining rational control over nature and the ordering of society it will be possible to achieve a lasting harmony—engineered perfection.

One example of such an attempt at engineering has to do with the shaping of human nature. On most end-state visions it seems necessary to assume that human nature is basically plastic. Since control of the community comes in controlling the habits and sentiments of the individuals who make it up. it is necessary to determine the best set of habits and sentiments to instill and to determine the best method for so changing human nature. […S]ome of the most common methods of change employed in end-state utopian visions include the use of coercion, terror, legal punishment, education, eugenics, inducements, drugs, and psychological conditioning. This idea of rational control leading to final harmony causes many to see utopian visions as static, totalitarian nightmares. End-state visions tend to make dogmatic assumptions about people and human society and to impose their single-minded view on others in an authoritarian and restrictive manner.

The tendency to substitute fiction for fact is what’s so worrying in end-state utopias. McKenna suggests that we can partially rehabilitate utopias by giving up the end-state and substituting “ends-in-view” that are themselves rooted in the lived experience of individuals, and that also inform the aspirations of those individuals.
Utopia
Obviously, this is a bit of an interest of mine. As I understand it, the moral imagination becomes dangerous when it substitutes its own vision for reality. The problem is that this kind of self-deception is also the key to political action. Here’s what I mean: Hannah Arendt maintained that the nature of action is to introduce novelty into the world. If this is the case, then we can accomplish novelty only by negating the present: well aware of the facts of the world we inhabit, the actor attempts to enact a state of affairs different from the one before her. What’s more, the same mental faculty that makes this resistance to given datum of experience possible fuels both progressive and pernicious deceptions. In an essay on the “Pentagon Papers,” Arendt writes:

“In order to make room for one’s own action, something that was there before must be removed or destroyed, and things as they were before are changed. [We] imagine that things might as well be different from what they actually are. In other words, the deliberate denial of factual truth—the ability to lie—and the capacity to change facts—the ability to act—are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source: imagination.”(Arendt, “Lying in Politics” 1971)

If aspirational fictions are to do their work, then perhaps we cannot escape the self-deception they entail. Is Martin Luther King a dogmatist with a “single-minded view of others”? Perhaps, in a sense, his relentless optimism about the potential for desegregation and social justice reflects a “dogmatic assumption about people and human society.” Perhaps he was even wrong, blinded by faith, just as Plato, Rauschenbusch, and Addams were. But who will blame them for it, given the world their self-deceptive optimism has made? Similarly, who can forgive Robert McNamara (or Leon Trotsky, or Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just for that matter) for the the state of affairs that their self-deceptive optimism created?

The justification for the lie is the politics it engenders, just as the proof of the utopia is the action it inspires.

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