Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Utopia's End

Ellen Willis, a proudly unreconstructive 1960s "progressive," takes up the standard on behalf of utopia.

Utopianism has gotten a terrible name lately, as historians have noted the tendency of utopians to be terrorists and totalitarians as well. Willis's topic is the writing of Russell Jacoby ("Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age"). It's exhilarating to see someone willingly and boldly defend an idea in the depth of popularity. And utopian dreamers have a long historical tradition as good guys, so someone ought to speak up for them when the whole class is in such bad odor.

Alas, Willis -- or perhaps it's Jacoby -- seems to want to accomplish this by a trick of definition. She writes:

Jacoby notes with indignation that some proponents of the anti-utopian syllogism have tried to get around this latter fact by labeling movements like Nazism and radical Islamism “utopian”—as I write, David Brooks has just made use of this ploy in the New York Times—as if there is no distinction worth making between a universalist tradition devoted to “notions of happiness, fraternity, and plenty” and social “ideals” that explicitly mandate the mass murder of so-called inferior races or the persecution of infidels.

She wants to separate Hitler and bin Laden from the utopians, as a precondition of defending the latter. But she does so by comparing the methods of the bad guys with the goals of the good guys. Which is a fallacy. Hitler and bin Laden, too, dreamed of a world of "happiness, fraternity, and plenty,” after they had ordered the existing world in the way they envisioned it ought to be.

In their case, as in that of Lenin, the process of arriving at utopia involved large-scale civil rights violations and the liquidation of certain classes or races that number perhaps in the millions of people. It's not the methods that unite utopians under one definition, it's the goals.

As to whether the 1960s-style utopians Willis defends would have turned out better than Hitler and bin Laden, that is a dubious projection, based on their enthusiasm, in the day, for homicidal figures like Mao and Che.

Willis ought to know better, since further up the same paragraph, she's given a definition of "utopianism" that easily includes the killers and the dreamers. She outlines the problem facing utopianism today as "liberal intellectuals—most notably Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, and Isaiah Berlin—[who] linked Nazism and communism under the rubric of totalitarianism, whose essential characteristic, they proposed, was the rejection of liberal pluralism for a monolithic ideology. In the cold war context, Nazism faded into the background; the critique of totalitarianism became a critique of communism and was generalized to all utopian thinking—that is, to any political aspiration that went beyond piecemeal reform."

[emphasis added]