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Utopia: Good Place or No Place?

Much has been written about the perennial temptation of the Utopian project embraced by intellectuals and political reformers across the ages. The impulse to radically transform existent society and replace it with a new, smoothly functioning, and presumably idyllic alternative never seems to diminish, a sign of perpetual dissatisfaction with the world as it is and, to a great and unchangeable extent, must be. The subject is as timely as it is timeless and slides along a continuum between the nostalgic desire for what once was or might have been and the revolutionary ambition to create a social paradise in the here and now.

As to be expected, the literature is interminable, grouped for the most part under the generic term “Utopian fiction” and including a wide ambit of texts of considerable thematic latitude, ranging from the Garden of Gems in the ninth tablet of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Garden of Eden in Genesis and the Golden Age in Hesiod’s Works and Days (when men “dwelt in ease and peace”) to, say, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two and Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia. The models developed are practically countless and, in the later exemplars, the rhapsody of destruction masking as beneficent change pretty well uncontrollable.

The myth of the earthly paradise or Golden Age has taken many forms, for example, the belief in an El Dorado hidden deep in inaccessible jungles, which animated explorers of old and was mercilessly mocked in Voltaire’s Candide; or the construction of an entirely new organization of social and political life, the attempt to bring the Golden Age into time, whether by stealth or by force. But perhaps the most celebrated source for the concept of Utopia, among a plethora of classical and Renaissance works too numerous to mention here, is Thomas More’s 1516 treatise of that name. More’s Utopia fixed the word in the language and is often read as a serious exploration of a possible, rationally conceived society, that is, of an “eu-topos,” the Greek word for “good place.” At the very least it reified the dream that has never ceased to beckon. The problem with this benign interpretation is that it dismisses the many satirical or ambifocal elements that call the book’s ostensible thesis into question.

It’s worth looking closely at More’s seminal book, which “deconstructs” the beau idéal of the Utopian program, revealing all sorts of deflationary traces that signal More’s original intent. Scholarship has determined that Utopia owes much to Lucian’s True History, which More had earlier translated, in which the 2nd century satirist had rollicking fun at the expense of the idea of another world categorically better than the one we inhabit. Names and titles are an even more direct giveaway. As Paul Turner points out in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Utopia, the main character’s surname, Hythlodaeus, is Greek for “dispenser of folly” or “Nonsenso.” The title of “chief magistrate,” Ademus, means “peopleless,” the river Anydras is “no water” and, of course, “Utopia” in its first acceptation is “ou-topos” or “no place.”

It gets even better as we move along. None of the inhabitants of Utopia, apart from Hythlodaeus, are given personal names, for they are not real people. The Utopians find Lucian “delightfully entertaining,” oblivious to the fact that he judged their progenitors a pack of utter imbeciles. Utopia has passed sumptuary laws forbidding extravagance in dress and accoutrement, yet exports “scarlet and purple cloth” to advance trade. The heads of family units are called “syphogrants” (silly old men) and their superiors are known as “tranibors” (plain gluttons). The capital of Utopia is Amaurotum, or “Dream-town.” Travel is restricted; nevertheless, the Utopians consider that “perfect happiness implies complete freedom of movement.” They despise precious metals and regard ascetic acts as ludicrous, yet More wore a golden chain and beneath it a hair shirt. Utopians have few laws and despise lawyers, but More devoted his life to the law and became England’s chief law officer. Divorce is permitted in Utopia; More went to prison rather than consent to King Henry’s divorce.

Hythlodaeus asserts that private property and material accumulation are the root of evil and must be abolished. He is rebutted by the More character in the story who, clearly parsing his mentor Aristotle’s Politics — we recall that he donates “even more of Aristotle” than of Plato to the Utopian library — argues that redistribution would lead to laziness and reduced production. Hytholodaeus has no riposte except to say that “in Utopia the facts speak for themselves,” which is palpably no answer at all. Indeed, More might be described as a proto-capitalist. In his more sober tracts, he savagely attacked the ethos of communal sharing practiced by the Anabaptists, and began writing Utopia when he was on an embassy to Flanders to promote the wool trade and thus increase the wealth of England’s mercantile classes.

The list of discrepancies in the text, and the contradictions between the historical More and his fictional stand-in, would fill several pages. I’ve provided only the merest hint of the discontinuities that strongly suggest, despite a few scattered indications for the improvement of social life, that Utopia is not to be taken seriously and that it is, ultimately, a bucolic and whimsical exercise in a genre we might call “romantic satire,” puncturing the figment of a surrogate Creation. Utopia is to be taken cum grano. It’s also interesting to note that the book has generated a respectable posterity. One thinks in particular of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in which a foolish Gonzalo boasts that he “would in such perfection govern [as] to excel the golden age,” of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, in which the Utopian world culminates in ennui and discontent, and Samuel Butler’s hilarious Erewhon (an anagram for “Nowhere”), where everything is done backwards.

What is true of the Utopia and its successors is even truer of the Utopian enterprise itself, in all its diverse manifestations. It is like a country without an invoicing currency. It is riddled with incongruities and plain impossibilities, flies in the face of human nature and leads inevitably to terrible suffering. The “Big Brother” syndrome is unavoidable — as More writes, “everyone has his eyes on you.” (This is a remark to be taken both literally and prophetically. As Anna Funder shows in Stasiland, the declassified East German Stasi files revealed, as in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR, a vast network of child and spousal informers spying and reporting on their own kin.) Dystopian fictions like Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Yvegeny Zamyatin’s We and John Calvin Batchelor’s undeservedly forgotten The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica (among others) flesh out the darker implications we find in More’s libellus (or “little book,” as he called it) and are mirrored in actual human societies that have followed the Utopian leveling and redistributive script: Soviet Russia, Mao’s China, the Jongleurs’ North Korea, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

It’s only fair to mention that Mario Vargas Llosa’s magisterial novel, The War of the End of the World, which tells the tragic story of the 19th century Brazilian commune of Canudos, is neither dystopian nor utopian. If we want to get a bit fancy, we might call it a meso-utopian fiction, falling somewhere in between the two genres. The historical Canudos, a society of the dispossessed, seemed to work for a time, before it was destroyed by the Brazilian government. Whether a colony without money, private property or marriage, comprising the wretched of the earth under the leadership of an “apocalyptic prophet,” would have flourished indefinitely is a question Llosa does not try to answer. Aside from a less turbulent microcosm of social change like Calvin’s 16th century Reformation Geneva, the fate of other such real-world communities would suggest not.

We need to keep in mind that entities like Geneva or Canudos were really small, relatively homogeneous city-states, not nations occupying a different scale of magnitude. The same is true of another famous historical instance, the 17th century English Diggers’ attempt to practice “the levelling of all estates” in various places around the countryside. Christopher Hill in his The World Turned Upside Down (a title appropriated by Melanie Phillips), sympathetically tracks the fate of this “utopian communistic society,” which may or may not have survived before it was broken up by the Council of State. Another such visionary adventure, Robert Owens’ New Harmony, disintegrated of its own accord. Owens’ effort to inaugurate a “New Moral World” as a prelude to the millennium in which social classes and personal wealth would melt away lasted less than three years.

But on the whole, such municipal anomalies are comparatively malleable. With the possible exception of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Turkey, now undergoing a fresh tremblor, it amounts to a near certainty that the program envisaging the “fundamental transformation” of any large and complex society must invariably produce a fundamental distortion of human potentialities, impoverish its supposed beneficiaries and install in power a privileged and despotic ruling class which represents the violent antithesis of its hypothetically sacred canons.

Here it is important to recognize that the American experiment in republican governance is by no means a Utopian project, as hostile revisionists may be disposed to argue or as some Utopian speculators, claiming precedent or superior knowledge, may allege in order to bolster their ongoing efforts to remake the country. Were they to have their way, as Mike McDaniel shows in a PJM article, law would then become a function of an elastic “values”-based mission, unfinished and open-ended, subject to constant re-interpretation in the quest to construct the perfect society, at the expense of a stable social and juridical order. This is, in essence, the “living Constitution” thesis so beloved of activist judges, intellectual meliorists and “progressive” politicians. It is part of the Utopian endeavor.

But the motto Novus ordo seclorum (New Order of the Ages), which derives from Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue and appears on the exergue of the Great Seal of the United States, obviously does not signify a Utopian upheaval. Rather, as explained by the Seal’s designer Charles Thomson in 1782, the phrase purports “the beginning of the new American Era,” based on profoundly moral and common sense principles. The American “New Order” is not a top-down political structure, but one that establishes the authority of the people over its legislators and representatives. Thus, the American system may be justly described as resolutely anti-Utopian, as if the Founders intuitively understood, unlike our current “experts,” that chronic social bricolage is a kind of pathology and that the Elysian passion is anathema to human welfare.

And the Elysian passion is cheaply bought. An analogous idea is expressed by Eva Hoffman in her memoir Lost in Translation where, borrowing Alan Tate’s word, she speculates that many American intellectuals and academics, primarily on the left, suffer from a form of “angelism” — “a desire to be more immaculate beings, avatars of pure ideas…so they can ricochet from one vision of utopia to another.” In particular, the academic branch of the compact may seem harmless enough, like mall Santas with tenure, but the influence they wield in the education of young minds, the conduct of public discourse and the production of left-wing intellectual unanimity is highly injurious. The fact is that the Utopian predisposition unfailingly releases its own devastating contradictions, starting in the penthouse and collapsing in the basement. It cannot help but fail since it is an a priori, intellectual concept divorced from real experience, springing like Athena from the forehead of Zeus and so violating the natural process of gestation.

These grimly earnest seekers after social beatitude must inevitably meet, not with success but, in the words of Edgar Allen Poe, with their own shadow, the ominous side of their putative errand of light. As Poe tells it in a wise and prescient poem, Eldorado, such “gallant knights” at the end of their journey will only have encountered the “Shadow” and found

No spot of ground

That looked like Eldorado.

In the final analysis, the Utopian obsession is the kind of infantile fantasy that drives the doctrinaire socialists (and multicultural appeasers) of the day. They are the child-soldiers of the millennium who brandish grown-up weapons and are determined to bring the City of the Sun, the New Atlantis, Utopia, Arcadia, the Land of Cockaigne, the “levelling of all estates,” the Golden Age of Man, the “New Moral World,” Marx’s “scientific socialism” or “communism,” neo-Marxism, neo-Socialism, social democracy, the caring society, the welfare state, “hope and change” — call it what you will — into being by every means at their disposal. Indifferent to what More called “the grand absurdity on which [such a] society was erected,” they opt for radical metamorphosis instead of gradual amelioration. They are ready, as the Russian philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev warned in The Destiny of Man, to sacrifice freedom for the illusion of perfection. They will turn the world upside down for our supposed benefit. It is, quite literally, a perennial ecstasis.

America especially must remain alert under an administration pledged to alter its constitutional foundations in the direction of a socialist patriarchy. The dire consequences of such lurid and quixotic prepossessions are everywhere visible, from an impoverished and totalitarian island off the coast of Florida to a collective European ally collapsing from within owing, at least in part, to the unsustainable reverie of universal peace and contentment. And it doesn’t stop there. The Utopian virus seems to be spreading almost unchecked, sometimes furtively, sometimes aggressively, with predictable results.

Investing one’s thoughts, feelings, energies, convictions and strategies in the effort to build a “no place” will result inescapably in establishing a “bad place,” a kakotopia, in which only the elite can prosper — or, at any rate, those who can escape their shadow. The 2009 Romanian film, Tales from the Golden Age, the most recent contribution to the Utopian (or rather anti-Utopian) curriculum, documents with rueful humor everyday life in the last years of the Ceausescu regime, showing just how drab and oppressive the aureate displacement of the ordinary can be for all but the new managerial aristocracy.

Such is the travesty inherent in the Utopian compulsion, which always seems to lead to a condition of reductive squalor and a morbid state of public resignation. Or, in More’s memorable words, Utopia represents the end “of all dignity, splendor and majesty.”