Why Utopia?

I’ve begun a series of posts exploring utopias and dystopias and their implications for political philosophy. (So far I’ve completed posts on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Naguib Mahfouz’s story “Evil Adored”.)  My plan is not only to consider the well-known philosophical utopias – e.g., Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, Charles Fourier’s phalanxes and the ideal societies of the utopian socialists – but to explore literary utopias and dystopias more widely.
Utopias and dystopias are models for the way that worlds might be (dystopias are also models of the world as it is if we generalize certain repugnant features).  Ursula Le Guin’s depiction of Anarres in her “ambiguous utopia” The Dispossessed  may be the most convincing and unflinching portrayal of a possible anarchist society. The Bangkok of Paolo Bacigalupi’s ecological apocalypse The Windup Girl is a compelling vision of a genetically enhanced world in which those who control access to resources rule. Cormac McCarthy mythologizes the violence of the American West in Blood Meridian and by doing so illuminates a strand of its national identity that has been largely suppressed in official narratives.
Why should political philosophers reflect on utopias (and dystopias)? “Utopian” is often used as a pejorative term to describe views that have no hope of being realized in the world. Often the implication is that “utopian” political philosophers are second-rate fantasists, unable or uninterested in learning enough social science to adequately criticize the world. There is often something to these criticisms, but there is also the danger of believing the actual world is the only possible world. The fundamental impulse for political philosophy is the conviction that the world is not as it should be and that it could be better. Too much “realism” comes with the risk as seeing existing institutions as necessary and in insisting that alternatives are fanciful and not worth serious consideration.
My motivation for thinking about utopia is the belief that political philosophy is in a period of transition where it needs to adapt to a changing world. We lack a convincing political vision today. In the twentieth century people saw communism as a goal to be desired and realized. Despite recent attempts to revive some version of communism by people like Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, the specter of authoritarian, command economy socialism remains a blot that we neither can nor should overcome. Marxism had a limited vision of what communism would be, in part because of Marx’s hostility to utopian socialism and the insistence on the scientific status of his theories. Marx as a critic of capitalism is unrivaled, but once we acknowledge the limits of prediction and near absence of laws in the social sciences, he offers little guidance for a better world. Humans are capable of love, kindness and generosity. There are also prone to hate, fear, envy, and covet. When imagining a better world, we must take into account humanity’s more vicious characteristics.
A deeper problem than a lack of a vision to aspire to is the fact that our political thought is structured by methodological nationalism and Eurocentrism. These biases make it difficult to imagine viable alternatives. Though the demise of the nation-state has been exaggerated in some circles, today’s political, economic, and social globalization is different in intensity and scope if it not in kind to anything humanity has experienced. Political philosophers are still trapped by the cognitive bias of methodological nationalism that restricts their imagination to two alternatives: world government or the persistence of nationalism and of nation-states. The result is that political philosophy is largely carried out using tools developed in the 17th and 18th centuries. We need to consider other possibilities by studying the emergence of processes and forms of governance that evade and transcend nation-states and by imagining other possibilities.
A second barrier is Eurocentrism. We have moved to a multipolar world in which Europe and the United States no longer hold a uniquely privileged position. Again, our political philosophy has largely been inherited from 17th and 18thcentury European thinkers with their biases and blind spots. What we need is a global political philosophy. This cannot be accomplished simply by incorporating non-European political theorists into the canon (I wrote about this in a blog post last month). We need to come to grips with the legacy of colonialism and also figure out how to move beyond it without falling into the nationalism and statist traps that consumed so many countries as they emerged from the age of empire.
Thinking about utopias alone is unlikely to overcome these biases on its own, but it should enliven us to different possibilities and invite us to imagine alternatives.

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